How so-called screen invasion is hurting school children in Nairobi

School children in Nairobi are spending too much time on electronic devices and it is affecting their health and development, medical researchers have warned.

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

The study published in the journal Plos One last week involved school children from Kenya, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Finland, India, Portugal, South Africa, the UK and the US.

Dr Lucy Wachira of Kenyatta University says the study involved pupils from poor, medium and rich households, largely determined by type of school they attend. “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.

Children from private schools and with electronic devices in their bedroom were most likely to spend more screen time on weekends and in total compared to their counterparts in public schools, affecting 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

“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,” says 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.

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 shows 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 and pastries, and 1.8 times more likely to eat potato crisps.

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

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