Technology has become a constant in our world. It’s like a steady presence reaching into every part of our lives. As a result, the amount of time spent in front of a screen has become a concern for many. Medical professionals, behavioral therapists, and health and wellness experts all count themselves among those who warn that screen time should be monitored and in many cases restricted. This goes for both children and adults.
So why the concern? Too much time looking at a screen can cause blurred vision. Extended screen time has also been known to lead to disrupted sleep rhythm, chronic neck and back pain, and less efficient information processing in the brain. All in all, too much time engrossed in a digital screen is not good for you.
What Parents Need to Know About Screen Time
First, when it comes to our children, parents need to be particularly vigilant to ensure screen time does not replace or reduce sleep, physical activity, or face-to-face interaction. These things are critical to learning and development, and can be easily thrown off track by too much electronic stimulation.
Second, there is no one-size-fits-all rule for screen time. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics does make the following recommendations:
- For children younger than 18 months, no screen time other than video-chatting.
- For children 18-24 months, only allow high-quality programming and view it with them.
- For children age 2 to 5, limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programming.
- Ages 6 and older, place time limits on media use and be consistent. Again, make sure screen time isn’t a substitute for sleep, exercise, or personal interaction.
Third, parents need to set limits on screen time for a number of reasons. It is becoming clear that young, developing brains need these limits. Dr. Aric Sigman of the British Psychological Society believes that permanent damage can be done if very small children spend too much time with screens. He suggests that focus, concentration, attentiveness, vocabulary, and the ability to communicate with others, can all be dramatically compromised. Ironically, these are often the very things parents hope to build by allowing their child to access technology.
Over time, negative effects of screen saturation may show up socially. The frontal lobe of the brain decodes and comprehends social interactions, learning to process and decipher hundreds of unspoken signals like facial expressions, tone of voice, and other forms of emotional communication. Children need interaction with the real world, and human interaction specifically, for this area of their brains to develop successfully. Too much time with screens and too little time in reality can impair this crucial development.
Limiting screen time can also teach children the important principle of delayed gratification. When a child interacts with electronics, they become conditioned to immediate responses. Unfortunately, in real life, we don’t always get an immediate response to our actions, our questions, or our needs. And in real life, it is very often necessary to wait. This is not a skill that technology use develops or encourages. In fact, it reinforces the exact opposite.
How do you know if screen time has become a problem for your child? If it seems your child is on a device or in front of a screen a lot of the time, assessing how your child is doing in three areas will help you determine if they might be overexposed to digital media:
Sleep. How well do they sleep? How many hours do they get typically? Have things changed recently?
School. How are they doing academically? Has there been any significant change in their school performance?
Social Interaction. Do they choose screen time over playing with friends, or social media over a real social experience?
One integrative child psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Dunckley, M.D., calls what happens to a child’s brain when it has been overexposed to electronic devices Electronic Screen Syndrome. She reports that this syndrome reveals its negative effects in the areas of focus, behavior, and mood, and that “Screen time is making kids moody, crazy and lazy.”
Dr. Dunckley’s solution is to take a break from electronics for four weeks, and her research found that a digital diet can produce improved behavior, increased attention span, more time spent reading, and better focus. But, a total elimination of device time won’t work for every family, so if you fall into that category, there are still things you can do to take control of overall exposure.
- Set up a system where your child can earn screen time by completing other activities like homework, chores, reading, and even creative play or art projects. An effective way to enforce this is to change the WIFI password overnight, making it necessary to work through a screen-free to-do list before they can get online.
- Be selective about the apps your child can access on the device. Delete time-wasters and entertainment apps and load up on those that are educational and encourage skill development and problem-solving.
- Exchange tablet time with book time. Spend some of the time your child would normally spend on a device reading to your child. Choose books that engage multiple age levels and make it a family affair if possible. Experts say that those adults who were read to the most as children, end up with the highest IQs.
- Establish screen free zones in your home like the bedroom and the kitchen table. Reserve these spaces for screen-free interaction and relaxation.
- When your child is young, spend time on screens with them to ensure they understand what they are seeing and experiencing through. As they mature, work with them to set healthy limits so they learn how to self-regulate.
- Set up a customized family media plan. Because one size does not fit all, the American Academy of Pediatrics has developed an online tool to help parents determine media limits tailored specifically for their family. This interactive plan sets time limits for different types of screens and media they use as well as various types of programming and activities. It makes it easy to map it out together, communicate openly, and be consistent.
The sky is the limit when it comes to what your child can do with screen time, and the what is an important consideration. Of course, there is plenty of mindless entertainment available, but screen time doesn’t have to be wasted time. Foreign languages can be learned, mysteries solved, and music composed. Enriching apps can lead your child into home science experiments, stargazing, and even simple app writing. The list of options is endless so when trying to decide which types of screen time are better than others, Common Sense Media recommends that parents look for how screen media engages your child. They suggest parents look for media that provides:
Connection. Make sure your child is making a connection with what they are watching or playing. If they are engaged in a story line they’ll be ready to learn.
Critical thinking. Some media, like certain games, can help your child develop problem-solving skills or expand their understanding of a particular topic they find interesting.
Creativity. The creative arts can be explored through media use and creativity can be stimulated in all kinds of healthy ways.
Context. How media relates into the larger scheme of things can be incredibly educational, especially if you participate with them and help them place it in the larger scheme of things.
Keeping these things in mind will help you determine how much is too much. And remember, sometimes the best idea is to just pull the plug for a little while.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016, October 21). American Academy of Pediatrics announces new recommendations for children’s media use. Retrieved from https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx.
CareWell Urgent Care. (2018, July 19). The effects too much screen time has on your health. Retrieved from https://www.carewellurgentcare.com/2018/07/19/the-effects-too-much-screen-time-has-on-your-health/.
Common Sense Media. Are some types of screen time better than others? Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/screen-time/are-some-types-of-screen-time-better-than-others.
Dunckley, Victoria. (2015, August 18). Screentime is making kids moody, crazy and lazy. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-wealth/201508/screentime-is-making-kids-moody-crazy-and-lazy.
Margalit, Liraz. (2016, April 17). What screen time can really do to kids’ brains. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/behind-online-behavior/201604/what-screen-time-can-really-do-kids-brains.