September is traditionally known as Back to School Season. All the kids are hot to trot with their new backpacks, notebooks, and gym shoes...but for many, this time of year also implies a sharp increase in time spent on screens. This phenomenon has become particularly exacerbated since the start of the pandemic.
There are a number of ways your children's health could be negatively impacted by too much time on screens, so what norms and expectations can you set up in your household to help promote healthy screen-time habits? Read on to learn more!
Screen Time Recommendations by Age
Before anyone can have a conversation about the impact of 'too much' time spent viewing a screen for television, working on a computer or playing video games, it is important to establish what is considered appropriate amounts of screen exposure for kids of various ages. The following guidelines come from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry1:
- 0-18 months: The only screen use recommended is video chatting with a close relative, such as a parent away on a trip. Otherwise, screens should be avoided as much as possible.
- 18-24 months: Educational programming is OK’d for a few hours a week, with a parent watching and playing along. The screen should be a supplement to an activity, not the focus of the activity.
- 2 years to 5 years: More educational screen time alone is fine, but anything non-educational should be kept to an hour per weekday and three or less on weekend days.
- 6 and up: At this age, recommendations are centered around encouraging habits and hobbies that don’t involve screens. Continue to limit non-educational screen use on weekdays while allowing a bit more on weekends. As kids make friends, and join more after-school and weekend activities, use their schedule and physical activity level to help determine what screen time is appropriate.
Potential Consequences of Too Much Screen Time
When viewed with a parent, children as young as two years old can benefit from some types of interactive screen time that involve music, movement, and story-telling.2 It is important, however, to recognize that passive screen time with less quality programming at any age can lead to a whole host of issues including:
- Obesity - It isn't necessarily what kids are doing on their screens that doctors are most concerned with, but rather what kids are not doing - moving.3 Too much sedentary time can also impact heart health and lead to a higher risk of diabetes, increased blood pressure, or cholesterol.4
- Sleep Disturbances - The blue light emitted by screens can trick the body into thinking it is still daytime, and late night screen time can also delay the release of hormones like melatonin that bring on feelings of sleepiness. These triggers can lead to insomnia or more restless sleep.3
- Neck and Back Pain - Maintaining positions for long periods of time, particularly when viewing phones or tablets, can lead to poor posture. If not intentional about taking breaks for movement, excessive screen time can lead to chronic back, shoulder, or neck pain.4
- Mental Health and Social Skill Impediment - Online gaming and social media can create unhealthy dopamine patterns similar to other types of addiction.3 Other studies have linked time on screens with depression and anxiety, particularly in adolescent girls.4 Replacing actual social interaction with socializing through screens can also impede kids' ability to read social cues and empathize with others.3
- Inhibition of Creativity - Plugging into a screen can easily be used as a mindless distraction that 'unplugs' kids from the world around them. Rather than approaching the world with curiosity and creatively interacting with their environment, it is easy to become content with endless scrolling or gaming.3
Family-Friendly Screen Time Tips
Here are a few specific screen time tips to support the health of everyone in your household:
- Family Unplugged Time - Aim to establish agreed-upon times for the whole family to put away devices (maybe dinnertime, in the car when you are driving places together, or set aside a few hours to get outside and move together each weekend!)
- Parental Controls - Let technology work for you to limit your kid's technology use! You can filter or block unwanted content, and can set daily limits that can lock children out of apps when they've reached a set amount of time.4
- Create an Overnight Charging Station - Plan to collect all devices one hour before bed to mitigate the impact of blue light exposure, and charge devices in a common room (outside of bedrooms) overnight to eliminate the temptation that could interfere with sleep.4
- Seek Interactive Screen Time - When you are allowing screens, aim to engage in things you can do together with the family. Even just talking about what games you're playing or shows you're watching will add a layer of real life interaction to the experience.2
- Eliminate Background TV - While it is quite common just to keep a television on in the house for some background noise, it still becomes a constant source of screen exposure. Be intentional about when the TV is on, and if no one is watching, turn it off.2
- Limit the Use of Screens as Babysitters - At some point or another, most every parent has used a screen to calm a nervous young traveler on a long plane flight or set their child down with some cartoons in order to get something done around the house. One way to make sure that trick always works to pacify your child is to avoid over-using it. When possible, consider books, arts and crafts, or other alternatives to keep them occupied.3
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when establishing expectations around screen time at home is that you need to model the behavior you hope to see in your kids.4 This can be through simple things like keeping your phone in your pocket and avoiding the temptation to pull it out anytime there is a moment of downtime. It also might mean pacing yourself the next time you're tempted to go on a Netflix binge.
Footnotes and Sources
1. Aacap.org, February, 2020
2. Mayoclinic.org, February 10, 2022
3. Screentimelabs.com, August 25, 2022
4. Blog.valleywisehealth.org, October 10, 2020