Technology has become part of normal life for most Kenyans. Television sets, mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices are now considered essential. They ease communication, simplify business processes and provide a sustainable source of entertainment for many people.
Despite these many benefits, health experts caution against the detrimental impacts of these gadgets on early childhood development.
A new study published in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” (JAMA) has found that exposing children to screens of electronic devices increases their risk of developing symptoms linked to autism.
The findings of the research indicate that sitting a baby in front of a computer tablet or television, and having less parent-child playtime, increases the risk of children suffering from autism spectrum disorder (ASD)-like symptoms later in childhood.
The ASD is a developmental ailment that affects communication and behaviour. Although the condition can be diagnosed at any age, its symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.
They include difficulty with communication or interaction with other people, as well as restricted interests and repetitive behaviours.
The symptoms associated with the disease can hurt the affected child's ability to function properly in school, work and other areas of life.
"These findings strengthen our understanding of the importance of play time between parents and children relative to screen time," said Dr David Bennett, a professor of psychiatry and senior author of the study from the US based Drexel University College of Medicine.
He stated: "There is a great opportunity for public health campaigns and paediatricians to educate and empower parents to possibly minimise their child's risk of ASD-like symptoms, which may include increasing social interaction and limiting exposure to screens of electronic devices at an early age."
According to the researchers, the findings of the study have come at a critical time when many children are at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Parents are also juggling demands linked to working from home or other responsibilities, while still watching their children.
These pressures may make many parents to resort to using electronic gadgets like mobile phones, computer tablets or television sets to keep children busy and have some free time to relax.
As they do this, they may not be aware of the adverse effects that their choices are having on the children.
While undertaking the study, the researchers reached out to parents and caregivers as they brought their babies for normal check-ups at health facilities, while aged 12 months and 18 months respectively.
During these sessions, caregivers were asked about how often their babies were exposed to books or electronic devices screens, as well as how frequently they played with their children. In total, the babies followed throughout the study totalled to 2,152.
This enabled the researchers from the Drexel University College of Medicine and Dornsife School of Public Health based in the US, to examine how watching television or videos, as well as social playtime and reading together, were associated with ASD-like symptoms at two years of age.
While toddlers are generally interested in interacting with others, those with ASD-like symptoms are less likely to show these social behaviours.
The results of the study revealed that viewing screens of electronic devices at 12 months of age was associated with a four percent greater risk for developing ASD-like symptoms.
On the other hand, children that had daily playtime with a parent were nine percent less likely to suffer from the symptoms, compared to those that did not.
According to the researchers, these findings back recommendations from the American Academy of Paediatrics, which discourages screen time in children younger than 18 months, unless it is used for video chatting.
"Our study shows the benefits of parent-infant interaction on later child development, as well as the association of greater screen viewing with developmental delays," said Dr Karen Heffler, the lead author of the study from the Drexel University College of Medicine.
The authors note that their study did not find an association with ASD risk, but rather with ASD-like symptoms.
Other studies have found that excessive screen time can also harm the health of older children by increasing obesity and disrupting sleep. This is due to the fact that they stimulate the release of dopamine, which is a brain chemical involved in cravings and desires.
In addition, research has shown that teenagers that use electronic media at night are more at risk for sleep disturbances and symptoms of depression.
These challenges usually subside once they reduce the time spent on electronic devices.