How screen invasion is hurting school children in Nairobi

By Gatonye Gathura

Medical researchers are warning that school children in Nairobi are spending too much time on electronic devices and it is affecting their health and development.

Pupils aged 9-11 in Nairobi primary schools are spending more than the recommended two hours per day behind the TV, computer and mobile phone screens and gaming gadgets.

Some of the children, especially the boys are spending more than four hours on weekends behind the screens, says a 12-country study involving pupils from 29 non-boarding schools in Nairobi.

This screen invasion, says Prof Vincent Onywera of Kenyatta University, and study co-author has been found to contribute to more sedentary life, less physical activities and poor eating habits and sleeping patterns.

Given this combination, children who spent the longest screen time were at a high risk of being overweight or obese and related diseases.

“Limiting screen time among children and the youth to no more than two hours per day may help prevent overweight and obesity among these groups,” says Prof Onywera.

The study published in the journal Plos One last week (28th June) involved school children from Kenya, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Finland, India, Portugal, South Africa, United Kingdom, and United States.

In Kenya, one of the researchers Dr Lucy M. Wachira of Kenyatta University says the study involved pupils from poor, medium and rich households largely determined by the type of school they attended.

Pupils from poor families were most likely to attend public school and the rich were to be found in private schools.

The study was also confronted with the stark differences between the two classes of children attending Nairobi schools.

Pupils attending public schools were more likely to be overweight or obese while their counterparts in the government school had the highest number of underfed and underweight children.

“Public schools had a majority of the normal weight participants, but also exhibited greater prevalence of underweight and underfat,” says the study.

It also followed that children in private school were most likely to have more screen time because they had access to more electronic devices including phones, computers, TV, games and tablets.

Students from private schools had significantly higher screen time daily, on weekends and in total compared to their counterparts in public schools.

Children with electronic devices in their bedroom were most likely to spend more screen time which has been shown to affect sleeping habits.

Among children who had moderate to-high levels of screen time, the study shows 76 per cent had a TV in their bedroom, 14 per cent had a computer while 25 per cent had a hand-held video game device.

Likewise 33 per cent had a cell phone while 19 per cent had a non-hand held video game system such as Play-Station or Xbox.

The study also noted that while children from poor families may not have a wide choice of electronic devices compared to those from rich families they also had their challenges.

“Many children from poor families normally sleep in the family living room where the television set is likely to be located and may therefore have extended viewing time,” explains Prof Onywera.

“We are struggling with increasing attention deficit in our classes which is related to too much screen time at home,” a senior teacher in Starehe Constituency in Nairobi told a recent parents’ meeting.

The parents, the teacher who requested anonymity, said have after discussions agreed to cut down on allowable screen time for their children.

Generally more than 60 per cent of the study children reported spending less than two hours screen time during school days.

However this changed dramatically with more than 70 per cent of pupils spending more than four hours of screen time on weekends and more so for boys.

Too much screen time, more than two hours a day, Prof Onywera explains is associated with poor dietary habits and an increase in ill health.

Prof Onywera who since 2011 has given the country three ‘Report Cards on Physical Activity for Children and Youth’ says children spending too much screen time are also likely to have poor physical fitness and increased obesity.

“Evidence has showed such children are also likely to have a high intake of calories possibly caused by too much exposure to advertising.”

Results from this study indicated that those who had high screen time were twice more likely to have high consumption of cakes, pastries and fast foods, and 1.8 times more likely to eat potato crisps.

Such children the authors say are also likely to eat higher fat foods, more fast food and soft drinks while watching TV compared to healthier options like fruits and vegetables.

The authors are warning that the number of children spending too much screen time should be cause for worry among parents and health authorities

“Strategies should particularly focus on reducing the high screen time among males to prevent the potential future health consequences.”

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