Teens on Screen – Ween ’em Go Green

Dr. Harish Shetty, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, was convinced that his seven-year- old patient had a problem. He would get into fights with other children, had no friends, was frequently restless in class, and at other times, often falling asleep while a lesson was being taught.

Teachers frequently summoned his parents to the school after which they finally agreed to have him checked at a suburban clinic and undergo behavioral therapy, thehindu.com wrote.

After a detailed examination, Shetty and his colleagues identified the cause of the boy’s troubles: Excessive screen time. The boy spent hours every day using his iPad, phone and watching television.

“We were taken aback when the parents told us that they had first bought an iPad for the boy when he was barely two years old,” Shetty recounts.

“He could be fed only if he was given an iPad screen to stare at with a cartoon or some other video playing on it. Gradually, the boy spent many more hours exploring the iPad. But in the process, he hardly stepped out to play, did not make any friends in the building nor in the school.”

His parents believed the tablet would help him learn and occupy his mind, but the fact was that they were over-indulging him, the doctor said.

“The anxiety and unruly behavior in him stemmed from the fact that his social skills were underdeveloped,” said Shetty, noting that the child would spend hours on his iPad most often playing games until his parents came home from work. Then, he would play with one of their smartphones. Later, he would spend time watching television. Last year, when he stepped into class one, the parents got him a basic cellphone to remain connected in case of an emergency.

During recess time, he would be glued to his phone instead of playing and sharing lunch with friends. Altogether, he was spending an average of seven hours a day staring at electronic screens.

Experts define screen time as the time spent watching television or playing games on tablets, phones, or computers without any educational reason. In a 2017 review paper, experts from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, US blamed excessive screen time for limiting language skills in children. These skills are directly related to the amount of time parents spend speaking to their children.

“Heavy television use or excessive screen time can interfere with a child’s language development because parents spend less time interacting and talking to their child. Furthermore, receptive language delays by age five are a significant risk factor for social and emotional problems in adulthood.”

Experts have linked increased screen time to other problems besides impaired learning. These include attention disorder, obesity, aggressive behavior, sleep deprivation and insomnia. What’s more, the World Health Organization recently set out to identify ‘gaming disorder’ as an addictive mental and behavioral health problem.

Under therapy, Shetty’s patient is now showing improvement as treatment involves his whole family. “We are gradually weaning him off the screens by letting him focus on other interests like drawing, crafts, etc. But we had to first start with counselling the parents,” he added.

But pediatric neurologist Dr. Pradnya Gadgil from Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital said that there is a lack of research on this subject from an Indian perspective. In the US, Gadgil noted, studies had shown that the advent of cable television was correlated with an increased incidence of autism. Although social communication disorders are thought to have a genetic predisposition, environmental factors, including increased screen time, play a role. This is seen predominantly in households living the urban lifestyle.

When a child or even an adult is hooked on to an electronic screen, he or she is in a passive, frozen, hypnotized mode, Gadgil notes.

“Our brain thrives when one is indulging in new activities. That’s when new circuits in the brain develop,” she explained.

“With screen addiction, one is simply functioning on the same circuit passively. The brain development stagnates.”

According to her, cases of pediatric migraines, which were rare a few years ago are now common. When one probes the lifestyle of affected children, it often turns out that they are spending many hours before a recreational screen, are rarely playing outdoors, consume processed food very often and fail to cultivate hobbies.

“Migraine, too, has a genetic predisposition. But there is undoubtedly a strong association between pediatric migraines and lifestyle which includes excessive screen time,” she observes.

How does pot affect the body?

Marijuana has both short- and long-term effects on the body.

Within a few minutes of smoking marijuana, a person feels the effects of pot, as THC is rapidly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, making its way to the brain and other organs.

What causes the “high” people experience is marijuana’s effect on over-activating parts of the brain containing specific brain cell receptors. This leads to feelings of an altered sense of time, other altered senses, changes in mood, impaired body movement, impaired memory and difficulty in thinking and problem-solving.

Researchers are still studying the long-term effects of marijuana. But what is known is that the younger a person begins using pot, such as in the teen years, the greater the declines in general knowledge, impaired thinking, learning difficulties and lowered IQ.

Other health effects from marijuana usage both physically and mentally can include the following:

·         Breathing problems – Marijuana smoke irritates the lungs, causing damage with an increased risk of both chronic bronchitis and lung infections.

·         Increased heart rate – Pot can raise a person’s heart rate for up to three hours after smoking, increasing the risk for a heart attack, especially in anyone with a heart condition.

·         Harm to unborn babies – Women using marijuana during pregnancy can have children with a lower birth weight and an increased risk of both brain and behavioral problems as infants. Children exposed to marijuana in the womb have problems of attention, memory, and problem-solving compared to unexposed children.

·         Intense nausea and vomiting – Those who are long-term, regular users of marijuana may develop cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, where they experience cycles of severe nausea, vomiting and dehydration.

·         Temporary hallucinations and paranoia.

·         Other mental health and behavioral problems – People with schizophrenia can develop worsening symptoms. Marijuana users – particularly heavy users – can have lower satisfaction with life, relationship problems, and less academic and career success. For young adults it can lead to a greater likelihood of dropping out of school, along with more job absences, accidents, and injuries.

Anyone using marijuana products should not do so before driving or operating heavy or dangerous equipment. And any woman using it who is pregnant should do the right thing and stop. Individuals with heart or lung problems would be smart to avoid it and it should never be used in any form around children or teens.

And no matter what proponents of marijuana use will tell you, marijuana use can lead to the development of a substance use disorder. Between 9 and 30 percent of users may develop some degree of this disorder. Those who start using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop a marijuana use disorder.

What about medical marijuana?

As controversial as it is, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has  approved medications containing synthetic THC drugs dronabinol and nabilone, both man-made forms of cannabis. These are used as appetite stimulants in AIDS patients and for chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting.

At this time, treating medical conditions using marijuana is still illegal on a federal level. There is still insufficient data from large, long-term, well-designed studies on the potential risks versus benefits of using marijuana to relieve symptoms of certain medical conditions.

There are however, ongoing studies on cannabidiol, a component of marijuana that does not have the mind-altering effects of THC. That may hold potential promise in helping conditions like drug-resistant epilepsy and some psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, substance use disorders, schizophrenia and psychosis.

Where do we go from here?

Here’s a better idea – how about encouraging people to get “high” on taking good care of themselves? It’s the little things, such as making every bite of food count, using physical activity every day to naturally release an endorphin high, relieving stress by watching a sunrise or sunset, or getting good feelings by helping others.

Those are the kinds of “highs” that are positive, life-affirming and with few risks to our health. Smoking marijuana and slipping into a THC-induced mind-altered state has been shown time and again to have more negatives associated with it than positives.

No matter how much fun using marijuana looks like on TV or in the movies, no matter what your friends say about it, no matter how many people tell you it’s harmless, and no matter what laws politicians pass to get votes or raise tax revenue, remember one thing: unless you have certain medical conditions where the drug may be beneficial, you are better off without it.


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Profile Dr Lalith Mendis Dr Lalith Mendis topped his batch on his graduation from Colombo Medical Faculty in 1976. He won the coveted Final MBBS top student’s Herath Guneratne memorial Prize & gold medal, Prof Rajasuriya Clinical Medicine Prize, Pharmacology Medal, Pathology Medal. He passed the MRCP (Part 1) in 1978. He was Clinical Registrar, Dept of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine (1979 – 1980) & moved to Pharmacology. He won the Commonwealth Scholarship in 1979. His last academic post was as Lecturer in charge Pharmacology, Faculty of Medicine, Kelaniya (1993 – 1999). Dr Lalith Mendis is the Founder Director of the Empathic Learning Centre, He has researched the effect of digital overuse on children & youth and developed empathic therapies to reverse inattention, impulsivity & hyperactivity. Dr Mendis hosts the monthly Digital Forum at his centre and has delivered lectures & conducted seminars on this theme in leading schools & Corporates in Colombo. He has also lectured in Germany, Malaysia & UK. Author of five books on the topic, his books Right Learning & Recovering Childhood, Children Our Heritage & Let the Children Come to Me are in their second print. His books are available from all major bookstores in Colombo. His latest book “Parenting Heart & Brain - in an age of digital domination” has a preface from the former Dean of the Medical faculty of Colombo. “I have been seeing children affected by too much cartoon abuse. This is not about ADHD but normal children with agitation & hyperactivity & inattention in studies”.

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