The tiny hands of a seven-year-old can barely hold an eight-inch tablet, but Riana had practice. The packed schedule of her working parents meant that since she was less than a year old, her only friends at home were her digital devices. Her days were spent watching videos online or playing games. As Riana grew older and got enrolled in school, she discovered that she had a difficult time making friends. Years went by and Riana became more and more isolated. Her only friends were the strangers she had met online. Her parents began to notice changes in her behavior, including her habit of spending late nights crying. At the mere age of 14, Riana’s world was shrouded by drug abuse and an intent for suicide. Her parents could only regret showing negligence during her developing years, since it had caused damage beyond repair.
This is a petrifying reality as we head towards “Digital Bangladesh” and see the rise of “digital” babies. Most of us are aware that excessive use of technology can have adverse effects, but just how much does it affect young, developing minds?
Rafiath Rashid Mithila, Head of Early Childhood Development Programme, BRAC International, explains, “Overexposure to screen time has negative effects on the physiological, social, mental, and physical development of children aged below five years, as found in many research studies. Of course parents always want the best for their children and would never consciously put their children at risk. But since the usage and impacts of technology are rising, we, as parents and caregivers, need to educate ourselves on the nitty-gritty harmful effects of overexposure to digital devices and nurture our kids accordingly. There are cyber predators out there, and a lot is happening in the cyber space which we might not even be aware of.”
To paint a picture of the kind of child psychology cases that exist in Dhaka city due to the overexposure of technology, Dr Farzana Islam, Specialist and Head, Child Development Centre, Apollo Hospitals Dhaka, shares, “Children below the age of five are brought to our centre due to issues of communication impairment and speech delay as a result of overexposure to devices. Middle-school children are also brought in due to excessive screen time causing deterioration in their academic performance. Children are so attracted to interacting with devices that they end up finding real world interactions boring.” Therefore, children may even grow up having difficulty in socialising.
Middle-school children are especially interested in social media. The damaging effects of social media on children’s mental health have been widely researched. Cases of anxiety and depression stemming from excessive time spent on these social platforms are more common than expected. According to a local daily, 148 children have died of suicide in Bangladesh in 2019 alone, and negative social media exposure has played a huge part in this. This also sparks concern over the kind of media the children are consuming, which brings up the topic of cyber security and parental controls.
According to UNICEF, at least 32 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17 in Bangladesh are vulnerable to online violence, cyberbullying, and digital harassment. While adults can be expected to know about the Digital Security Act and their own rights when they face such situations, the same cannot be expected of children. This leaves children much more vulnerable to becoming victims of cybercrime, the trauma of which stays with them even after they grow up.
Parental controls, which are used to limit what children can view on the internet, exist in most mobile applications and software, but should these controls really be used? Some argue that putting restrictions on content could lead to more harm than good, as this could hamper children’s sense of privacy and result in them shying away from safer online content as a form of rebellion. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), children aged three to four should not have screen time of over an hour per day. This might not be realistic for working parents who might need to keep their children distracted while they work. What is needed is a healthy balance in regulation, so as to not make children feel as though they are being put under excessive restrictions, but all the while encouraging them to consume better content, such as entertaining yet educational videos. “Parents these days are overly protective and anxious. They pacify their crying children by handing them devices, but they also do not want their children to face the negative consequences of exposure to technology. Their mistake lies in initially giving in to the children’s request for devices. I believe there is a large gap in parents’ training and social education in our society,” shares Dr. Farzana Islam.
UNICEF Bangladesh, Grameenphone and Telenor Group have partnered up to train 1.2 million children and adolescents in the country to stay safe online, and also train 400,000 parents, teachers and caregivers to support child online protection. The project named “Strengthening and Scaling Child Online Protection in Bangladesh” will reach 20 million people through an integrated communications campaign for child online protection awareness and will engage at least 50,000 people in taking supportive action.
Even though the adverse impact of technology usage on children is an important issue worldwide, there is a huge gap in research. Since the increasing usage of mobile devices among children aged zero to five is a more recent phenomenon, most of these children are yet to reach and cross the threshold of adolescence. This means that the gradual long-term effects of early exposure to digital devices are yet to be studied. However, since the negative impacts on early development of children are already known, there needs to be continuous effort to prevent unhealthy levels of digital consumption by children.