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Jan 22, 2023

The Pandemic and Lockdown Have Been Catastrophic for India’s Pre-Schoolers

The effect of screen time on the youngest generation, especially in their formative years, needs urgent redressal.
Photo: LandoCol/Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The results of the first post-pandemic Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) are out but the situation may be even worse than what the 2023 survey has captured.

As an educationist of 45 years standing, the question I ask myself is – Are we on the brink of losing a whole generation? I am serious when I pose this question. It bothers me, fills me with anguish to see what we adults are allowing to happen to our children, irrespective of the age bracket they belong to. Mobile, screen time exposure is having a catastrophic effect on them. The worst hit are the ones born a few years before or during the COVID-19 period. What will happen to them, when they reach their puberty, teens, adolescence, is beyond comprehension.

We, at Mothercare School, have had pre-schoolers coming to us for the last 45 years. We have never before witnessed what we get to see now. Children who are unable to speak, interact with others, focus, relate to others, socialise, share. Their cognitive ability is lacking, they do not have the required fine or gross motor control. In fact, we find quite a few cannot chew or swallow solid food. Most of them throw tantrums if not given what they want. Some, even at the age of 5/6 years, are speaking a mix of Korean, English, Hindi which no one can understand. Why? These kids have got addicted to Korean or other language cartoons and that’s the mixture of garbled language they can speak, which no one, not even their parents or speech therapists, can understand.

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Some little ones do not sleep before midnight because of their addiction and get up by noon the next day. The COVID-19 period was an abnormal one for middle-class families. With work from home, no domestic help, ailing, dying family members, financial setbacks…. these kids were left to fend for themselves, often with a mobile device handed over to them. It starts with parents saying we only give them the mobile while feeding them. The children don’t open their mouth to eat, till they have a mobile in their hand. Blackmailing learnt at a very early age.

The screen time saga has begun, regardless of what damage electromagnetic waves do to the fast, multiplying brain cells of the child. Even now, with both parents working, breakdown of the joint family system in India, or elderly ailing older generation at home and kids left in care of maids who use their own, mobiles as pacifiers for the kids, watching their own favourite TV programmes. The little one quiet and manageable with her or his hand-held mobile. Everyone is happy but clueless about the permanent damage to the young child.

Is there nothing that can be done? This issue needs to be taken up on a war footing. What we have found to work is to get the kids engaged in things – more interesting activities, interaction with other sensitive adults and children. We humans are gregarious animals and we need human one-to one interaction. The children need varied stimuli for each and every development area. They need the human touch in every stimulus providing activity.  The virtual kind makes us into isolated beings lacking in human traits.

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If we cannot give time and inputs needed by these little ones at home – in these formative years of their life, when 95% of brain development and personality traits get ingrained – we should look for a good pre-school/day care facility, one that is a home away from home. A place where personalised attention is given and conscious effort made to fill in all the gaps mentioned above. Children should have the opportunity to try their hands at different activities. And adults must be able to see what game, sports, music, art, dance, dramatisation, story narration, interests the child. What inherent talent, attributes, does the child have. What is her or his god given gift. An early start with sensitive teachers who can sow the seeds of interest, which can, someday, perhaps, become a career for them. The seed gets sown in a child-friendly way, at this formative stage.

Blank faced toddlers with mobiles in their hands. Our future generation is too precious. This whole problem requires in depth research, study and an effort to find constructive solutions. This is a wakeup call to all of us educationists, parents, schools and apex bodies. Act before it’s too late.

Shobha Dev has been running Mothercare School in Lucknow for the past 45 years.

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