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Dhaka Tribune

Digital dependency

The consequences of city kids forgoing outdoor sports

Digital dependency increased significantly amid the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020-22

Update : 14 Jun 2023, 12:29 AM

A child's proper growth largely depends on a conducive family environment and a range of social elements, including friends and playmates in educational institutions, playgrounds, cultural organizations, and libraries, that boost their spirit and help them maintain a healthy life. 

In the past, many children and teenagers would rush to the fields to play soon after school hours and would return home before evening. Every neighbourhood across the country had open spaces and playgrounds alongside clubs and libraries.

Apart from playing football and flying kites, children of the suburbs and rural villages used to spend hours playing rural outdoor sports events in small or large groups like Gollachhut, Dariabanda, Bouchi, Danguli, Sat Chara, Lathim, Marble, Kanamachhi, and Kutkut. 

Some of these events were so popular that people of all ages would flock to witness the games and take part with cheers and witty comments. Even the children of the metropolitan cities played some of these local games until the ‘80s.

But the traditions started disappearing due to the loss of open spaces and playgrounds for urbanization, industrialization and increased agricultural production, to the advent of television, computer, mobile phone and the internet, and other social issues, say experts. Now very few children in cities play football or cricket outside the home and prefer to play online.

Experts emphasize that a child's normal development is not possible within the confines of four walls. Physical health greatly benefits from regular exercise, jogging, and sports. Doctors also recommend sports for children as a means to ward off diseases and stay healthy. Nevertheless, the tradition of outdoor games, a free-spirited environment where children can run around and breathe freely, is increasingly eroding among urban children.

While many strict parents forbid their children to play outside the home and mix with strangers, their children tend to lose interest in playing outside or exercising. In the case of imposing a bar on mobility, girls who have reached puberty face more discrimination than boys due to social norms. 

Moreover, the children of working parents and those who are introverted may become addicted to digital devices. On the other hand, liberal parents often observe their children immediately reach for their phones upon returning from school, showing little interest in playing outdoors. 

The situation worsened significantly due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020-22 when schools remained closed and children had to attend online classes.

Hence, the trend of children and teenagers spending more time on digital devices, including TV, computers and phones, to watch YouTube videos or play online games is on the rise. Key features of children's popular videos and games are fast-paced content, rhythmic music, and a diversity of characters.

Doctors say most of the children with high screen time face some common psychological and physical complications, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, poor sleep, poor eyesight, reduced bone density, and obesity among other issues. 

Moreover, exposure to violent and fast-paced content activates dopamine and the reward pathways. Early and prolonged exposure to violent content is also linked to risk for antisocial behaviour and decreased prosocial behavior. 

Psychoneurological experts warn that addictive screen time use decreases social coping and involves craving behaviour which resembles substance dependence behaviour. Brain structural changes related to cognitive control and emotional regulation are associated with digital media addictive behaviour. 

The addiction

Dhaka Tribune conducted an investigation to explore why children consider digital devices like phones as their best companions.

Parents hesitate to let their children go outside due to a lack of grounds, security concerns, and fears of pollution-related illnesses. Additionally, children tend to develop a habit of staying indoors, creating their own world within the confines of their homes.

When talking with parents in Dhaka, it seemed evident that many children are unaware of the existence of playgrounds in their neighbourhoods. Instead of engaging in outdoor activities, they remain fixated on their screens, even during meals. 

Parents also use smartphones and sometimes provide their phones to children for various reasons; but over time, the children become addicted easily. Seeing an adult using a smartphone often sparks curiosity among children, leading them to desire their own devices.

Many parents fail to dedicate quality time to their children instead of preoccupying themselves with watching cartoons on TV and social media or chatting.

Children who experience loneliness due to the absence of parents or guardians at home are more susceptible to smartphone addiction. Parents sometimes resort to giving their children smartphones to pacify them or use cartoons on mobile phones to encourage them to eat. Consequently, children become calm and eat their meals, but their dependency on digital devices increases.

Farzana Fairoz, the mother of a 12-year-old child, shared: “My son has never been outside in the heat and dust since he was young. So, I have never allowed him to play outdoors. Instead, he watches sports and educational videos on his mobile phone and television at home.”

Farzana's perspective is shared by many urban mothers who believe that allowing children to watch educational content on mobile phones is preferable to going outside and risking their health. If indoor games and activities are available, they do not mind their children playing sports with other family members to pass the time.

Kids speak out

Fourteen-year-old Rakib, a seventh grader at a top school in Dhaka, has never played any sports on a field. He believes that engaging in such activities may harm his body and mind. His perception derived from advice given by his parents and relatives from an early age. 

His routine tasks include going to school in the morning, taking lunch after returning home, taking a nap, studying, playing computer games briefly, and then studying again with his mother.

When asked about his activities during holidays, Rakib replied: “I rest, sleep, go out to eat with my parents, and then watch videos or play games on my mobile phone. I dislike going outside; it's too hot and dirty.”

Many children and teenagers in Dhaka share similar experiences and have never had the opportunity to engage in outdoor sports.

Fahad, an 11-year-old sixth grader at a posh school in Dhaka, said: “Sometimes I feel very tired after returning home from school. And there are extra classes. So, I don't have much time to go out and play. My mother doesn't let me go out much, either, and my friends also prefer indoor activities; so, we spend our afternoons or evenings playing video games together on online platforms.”

Tehrima Imran, a 10-year-old fifth grader in the same school, echoed Fahad's sentiments. “My mom never lets me go anywhere alone, and there is no nearby field suitable for a girl to play. Sometimes I go for walks with my father and watch TV whenever I have free time from studying.”

Noor Saba, who studies in a girls' school, said: “Every afternoon, I go to the rooftop to play. During holidays, friends come over, and sometimes I visit them. We talk, play, and have fun together. I prefer not to go to the field due to the crowded environment. So, we play at home, spend time on social media using mobile phones or computers, and watch TV.”

Indoor sedentary generation

Experts say proper nutrition and exercise are crucial for a child's physical growth. Sports provide children with the best form of exercise and contribute to their overall development, including cognitive and creative abilities. 

The more the children are exposed to appropriate education, sports, and entertainment, the better their spiritual development becomes. Moreover, children who get the company of their parents more often during play and are inspired positively become knowledgeable and creative. 

Dr Zebunnesa, a child specialist at Bangladesh Medical College Hospital, emphasizes that sports foster critical thinking, creativity, and physical growth. Children who miss out on sports during their formative years may encounter various health issues and complications before adulthood.

Dr Wahida Parveen, a psychiatrist at Ain o Salish Kendra, asserts that human interaction is crucial for a child's mental health. Through contact with others, children learn to socialize and communicate effectively.

“If a child spends the entire day indoors, interacting solely with friends through a mobile phone, his/her mental development will be stunted.”

She further suggests: “Children do not enjoy the same daily activities. Therefore, parents should encourage regular outdoor play or take them for walks. This exposure helps them adapt to the external environment.”

Dr Wahida expresses concern about the consequences of creating a generation that lacks physical activity and outdoor experiences.

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