Thirty years ago, American families used to gather around the television set. Now every member of the family often has access to almost every screen available, from laptops and smartphones to tablets and video games.
This access has its advantages. For instance, distant grandparents love seeing their little ones on FaceTime or Skype.
However, it has also produced apprehension, among parents and child health professionals alike, about the effects of all this screen time on children. What’s more, it’s not only the ubiquity of screens that is concerning…but the effects screen usage can have on young brains.
“Screen time can be engaging for people of all ages,” explains counselor Edward Luker, LPC, of theMayo Clinic Health System (MCHS). “This is because our brains process and react to the sensory input as if it were happening to us. For example, many people have cried, laughed or been startled while watching a movie.”
How Much Screen Time Do Children Get?
A lot, according to theAmerican Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). Children between the ages of 8 and 12 interact with screens for between four and six hours a day; for teens, that can rise to as much as nine hours.
What is especially problematic for researchers is the amount of time younger children spend in front of screens.
In one2020 study, parents gave a research team permission to use unobtrusive sampling methods as a way of finding out exactly how much time children between the ages of 3 and 5 spent on phones. Among youngsters with their own devices, average daily usage came out to 115.3 minutes a day, or just under two hours.
“Children’s use of mobile and interactive media has increased rapidly over the past decade,” said the study team. “Infants are estimated to start handling mobile devices during the first year of life.”
What’s more, “parents may not always know what their children are viewing,” notes the AACAP. Disturbing content may include depictions of violence, dangerous stunts, sexual situations or substance abuse.
The Benefits of Controlling Your Child’s Screen Time
Screens are here to stay in everyone’s lives, including the lives of our kids. But there are advantages to controlling the time your children spend interacting with these devices.
Less Exposure to Child-Focused Advertising
The increase in screen time has led to a similar rise in ad exposure. According to industryestimates, the average American is shown between 4000 and 10,000 ads every day—compared with between 500 and 1600 daily ads in the 1970s.
Many of these ads are aimed directly at kids. “Advertising to children and teenagers is a multibillion-dollar industry,” said the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in a2020 policy statement.
And this advertising can be very, very effective, given that children don’t always understand what a sales pitch is…and may find it irresistible even if they do realize what’s going on.
“School-aged children and teenagers may be able to recognize advertising but often are not able to resist it when it is embedded within trusted social networks, encouraged by celebrity influencers or delivered next to personalized content,” says the AAP.
These kinds of sophisticated ad programs can make getting your kids to lead healthier lives an uphill battle.
According to the AAP, “Evidence suggests that exposure to advertising is associated with unhealthy behaviors” such as eating junk food, drinking alcohol and smoking or vaping.
Reduced Obesity Risk
Not being exposed to as many junk-food ads is only one reason less screen time can help keep your kids from gaining too much weight.
“Snacking or eating meals in front of the TV can cause mindless eating, causing you to eat larger portions,” says the MCHS’s Mysoon Ayuob, MD, a family medicine specialist. “When you eliminate distractions, you pay more attention to your body and its signals when it's full.”
The good news is that reduced screen exposure has been linked to healthier behaviors.
For example,one study found that learning about screen-time reduction in school significantly reduced children’s “television viewing, video game use and number of meals eaten in front of the television,” says the AAP.
Less screen time may also help your children get more sleep, which has a number of health benefits (including reduced obesity risk).
“Children who watch more TV tend to have a harder time falling or staying asleep,” says Ayuob. “They can feel tired and snack more often to make up for lost hours of sleep.”
In addition, Ayoub notes, “Children who spend more time looking at a screen are more likely to have behavioral problems and divided attention.”
It’s not just the amount of time spent watching video or playing games that creates problems.
“As humans, our production ofmelatonin, the sleep hormone, kicks in when the sun sets,” says Jennifer Cross, MD, ofNewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children's Hospital. “But the blue light from screens inhibits melatonin, which can delay sleep.”
She adds, “Watching TV or playing games also keeps our brains and bodies more alert and activated, and less ready for sleep.”
Enhanced Child Development
Feeling more energetic and refreshed during the day is just one reason less screen time can help your your child develop cognitively and emotionally the way he or she should.
Cross cites a National Institutes of Health (NIH)study in which “children who spent more than two hours a day on screen-time activities scored lower on language and thinking tests. Some children with more than seven hours a day experienced thinning of the brain’scortex, the area of the brain related to critical thinking and reasoning.”
Why does this happen?
Cross says electronic devices can be so entertaining that it can be hard to get children to do what used to be considered normal kid stuff—“playing with toys to foster imagination and creativity, exploring outdoors, playing with other children to develop appropriate social skills.”
Cross is concerned that when “I see children walking with a parent or being pushed in a stroller, they are often playing on a smartphone or a tablet and not paying attention to anything else around them. They will not learn about the world around them if all they’re doing is looking at a phone.”
What kids watch affects their development, too.
“Content is crucial,” notes the AAP. “Evidence shows that switching from violent content to educational/prosocial content results in significant improvement in behavioral symptoms.”
More Time to Develop Socially
Less time spent with screens means more time spent with other people…and spending time with people is the only way children can develop the social skills they’ll need to make their way through life.
“One study found that a group of children who went without electronic devices for five days were better at recognizing facial emotions and reading nonverbal cues than children who lived life as usual,” says Cross. “It’s that back-and-forth, sharing facial expressions and reacting to the other person, that improves language and communication skills in young children.”
Cross adds that even something as simple as having a television on with no one watching can be distracting: The noise and movement “will direct your focus to it rather than what is happening around you.”
Reduced Risk of Screen and/or Gaming Addiction
For some youngsters, excessive screen usage can have an addictive effect.
“The problem with mobile devices is that they draw you in,” says Cross. Adults can train themselves to put the phone down, but for very young children who have been raised with screens, “it becomes their norm and they want to do more of it.”
That can be especially true of video games.
“Excessive video game use can lead to the brain being revved up in a constant state of hyperarousal,” says the MCHS’s Luker. Heightened arousal leads the brain to release a powerful substance calleddopamine; over time, “the person develops a strong drive to seek out that same pleasure again and again.”
Luker says this can lead to “difficulties with paying attention, managing emotions, controlling impulses, following directions and tolerating frustration.” In extreme cases, gaming can lead a child to experience problems in school and to cut back on social or recreational activities.
How Much Screen Time Should Your Child Be Allowed?
AACAP recommends following these screen-time guidelines:
- Up to 18 months: Limit to video chatting with an adult
- 18 to 24 months: Limit to watching educational programming with a caregiver
- 2 to 5 years: Limit non-educational screen time to 1 hour on weekdays and 3 hours on weekend days
- Ages 6 and older: Encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens
Ways to Control Your Children’s Screen Time
Here are tips for helping your children develop healthier relationships with screens.
Control Your Own Screen Usage
You can’t ask your kids to do something that you don’t do yourself, so be aware of how much time you spend engaged with screens.
“Kids will do what they see their parents doing,” says Cross. “If they see that you’re behind a screen all day every day, then they’ll see that it’s acceptable and will want to do the same.”
Try to establish “unplugged” family time in the early evening: Time to take a walk, shoot baskets or kick a soccer ball around. Need to stay indoors? Read or play board games. And on weekends, establish a block of “family time” when you can all go on a hike, visit a museum or volunteer at a local charity.
Don’t Use Screens as Babysitters…
Handing a tablet to a cranky toddler may seem like an easy solution to a common problem, but it won’t teach your little one how to handle difficult feelings.
“We should be careful of relying on screens to distract a child from a problem rather than having them figure it out and learn to resolve it themselves,” says Cross.
If you absolutely need to concentrate on what you’re doing, Cross advises “turning on a short TV show like Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood—something educational and fun that shows characters interacting and playing cooperatively to model good social skills—rather than giving your child a tablet or a phone.”
…Watch Screens with Younger Children Instead
In fact, “well-designed television programs, such as Sesame Street, can improve cognitive, literacy and social outcomes for children 3 to 5 years of age,” says the AAP.
However, the group notes that most “educational” apps tend to “target only rote academic skills, are not based on established curricula and use little or no input from developmental specialists or educators.”
And keep in mind that little ones learn best from even high-quality programming when you watch with them.
"Comment on things you notice, ask questions about what is happening; if someone on a show is singing a song, sing along with your child,” advises Cross. “Engage with them and repeat concepts after the show is over so they’re more likely to retain that information.”
Establish Screen-Use Rules for Older Kids
Child health and development professionals suggest the following as part of your family’s screen-usage protocol:
- Mealtimes and bedtime should be screen-free; no screens one hour before bedtime; keep the charging station out of bedrooms
- Don’t eat meals in front of the TV, which should stay off unless someone is actually watching it
- Record programs for later viewing so you can fast-forward through ads; use the mute button when watching live programming (such as sports)
- Plan what you’re going to watch; no one (including you) should idly flip through channels
- Actively decide when your child is ready for a personal device, taking his or her maturity and habits into account
- Choose media with the help of nonprofit groups such asCommon Sense Media, which provides age-appropriate media reviews; learn about and use parental controls (including those offered by streaming services such as Netflix or Disney Plus)
- Test apps yourself first, then use them together and ask your child what he or she thinks about the app
- Consider using apps that control the length of time your child can use a device
- Lean towards content that requires active viewing, such as fitness-themed games or those that require players to build something together
- Learn about thegame rating categories and only allow your children to play video games suitable for their ages; the same goes for movies or other screen content
Teach Children to be Screen Smart
Since your kids will be dealing with screens all their lives, you should help them become savvy consumers of screened content.
“Talk to your child about what they are seeing,” suggests the AACAP. “Point out good behavior, such as cooperation, friendship and concern for others. Make connections to meaningful events or places of interest.”
You can even watch ads together: Why are they so enticing? What techniques do they use to make you want to buy the advertiser’s product? Explain that just because something’s on TV does not automatically make it true.
Your kids should also understand how to maintain privacy online.
“Discuss with your children that every place they go on the Internet may be ‘remembered,’ and comments they make will stay there indefinitely,” says the AAP. “Impress upon them that they are leaving behind a digital footprint. They should not take actions online that they would not want to be on the record for a very long time.”
You can help by going over the privacy settings on all your devices. “Understand the differences between privacy settings that determine what other users can see about you and the platform collecting data about you,” says the AAP.
Social media can be another screen minefield.
“You may consider having your own profile on the social media sites your children use,” suggests the AAP. “By friending your kids, you can monitor their online presence.” Preteens should not have accounts on these sites.
As the AAP puts it, “Digital literacy requires that children, teenagers and parents understand that technology is created by other humans with their own agendas and that they can accept or reject its messages.”
Go here to learn more about children and social media.
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.