Welcome to the 21st century, when the glowing screens of smartphones, computers, tablets, TVs and other electronic devices are nearly unavoidable. While those devices can be beneficial and a great resource, it’s important parents are cognizant of how much time their children are spending with them.
There’s already substantial scientific and anecdotal evidence to suggest that too much screen time can be harmful to children.
A landmark new study launched by the National Institutes of Health seeks to add to our collective understanding. The study, launched in 2018, is following 11,000 9- and 10-years old at 21 locations throughout the U.S.
Although still in its early stages, researchers using MRI scans have already found significant differences in the brains of some children who reported using smartphones, tablets and video games more than seven hours a day. Children who reported more than two hours of screen time daily also tended to get lower scores on thinking and language tests.
Other studies since the 1980s have documented an association between screen time and obesity, and there are other potential concerns, too, says Dr. Carrie Wood a resident family medicine physician at Tidelands Health Family Medicine at Holmestown Road.
“Increased screen time is associated with challenges in school, sleeping and eating and attention-deficit disorder,” she says. “In the adolescent population, a group that tends to heavily use social media, there’s also an increased risk of cyber bullying.”
It’s easier to establish a good habit from the start than to try to break bad habits later. Fortunately, there are guidelines that can help parents navigate the issue of how much screen time children should be allowed.
For children younger than 18 months old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends discouraging any screen time other than video chatting.
Among children 18-24 months old, parents who want to allow some screen time are encouraged to choose high-quality programming and apps and use them with their children. They should avoid allowing children to use the media by themselves.
For children older than two years, the AAP suggests no more than one hour per day of high-quality programming through age 6. For older children, the association recommends parents place consistent limits on media use and make sure it does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors important to good health.
“We encourage parents to set limits,” Dr. Wood says. “A lot of time kids come home and go straight to the TV. A better alternative is to play outside or complete homework.”
30 minutes per day
Dr. Wood recommends parents of younger children limit television time to 30 minutes per day and designate it as family time during which parents and kids watch a show together. Talking, playing a game, pursuing a hobby and working out are other healthy activities that parents and children can enjoy together that don’t involve screen time.
Young people, depending on age, need 8-12 hours of sleep a day. Putting down cell phones and other devices well before bedtime can help support quality sleep and keep children from staying up too late playing games or using the Internet.
It’s also appropriate to designate areas of the home as digital-free zones, she says.
“We recommend removing TVs from bedrooms. That’s an easy way to cut some screen time out,” Dr. Wood says. Other tips from the AAP for helping children use screens in a healthy manner include:
- Keeping computers in a public area of your home so you can monitor what children are doing online and the amount of time they are spending on screens
- Discussing the consequences of inappropriate use of screens and the Internet including cyberbullying and communicating with strangers
- “Friend” your kids on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites to be aware of their online activities
The AAP offers advice on how to set up a Family Media Plan that is specific to your family and takes into account children’s ages, development, personalities and other factors . It can be found here.
Dr. Carrie Wood
Resident Family Medicine Physician, Tidelands Health Family Medicine at Holmestown Road