With school out for the summer, our kids’ (normally full) schedules are now wide open. How will your children spend their free time? If they’re like most kids, a whole bunch of it will be in front of a screen.
It’s a common battlefront between parents and children, from toddlers to teens alike. Desperate parents may appease a screaming 2-year-old with a video or game on their phone. And one 13-year-old recently told CNN that when her phone gets taken away, “I literally feel like I’m going to die.”
But parents need to limit screen time, even if it means playing the bad guy — our children’s mental and physical health depends on it.
The physical effects of screen time
Obesity. Sitting in front of a television or computer is a “sedentary behavior,” the American Medical Association says, which means it doesn’t burn much energy. Considering tweens in the U.S. stare at screens for more than four hours a day and teens up to seven hours, according to Common Sense Media, that’s a lot of sitting. In fact, fewer than four in 10 children meet both the physical activity recommendations and the screen time recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Tweens in the U.S. spend at least four hours a day in front of a screen, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends only an hour or two of screen time a day. (Photo: Brocreative/Shutterstock)
Sleep loss. Screens and that lack of physical activity affect their sleep, too. A 2014 study showed a connection between “excessive screen time and shorter sleep durations [which] are predictive of behavioral and social problems, poorer academic performance, and health conditions such as obesity.”
Hand pain. Not to mention the damage texting and gaming on our phones can do to our poor hands. A 2015 study in the journal Muscle & Nerve found that college students with high phone usage have more impaired hand function, thumb pain and repetitive-strain injuries than students who used their phone less.
Headaches. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Neurology and Psychology showed that complaints of headaches were higher in people who used their phone a lot than people with low phone usage. And headaches were longer and more frequent in heavy phone users, too.
The mental effects of screen time
Obsessive behavior. CNN recently conducted a study of how teens use social media by analyzing the social media accounts of 200 eighth graders across the U.S. (with their permission). The study authors found that the more kids checked social media, the more distressed they became. And some checked their accounts more than 100 times a day! Child clinical psychologist Marion Underwood, the study's co-author, told the network:
"This is an age group that has a lot of anxiety about how they fit in, what they rank, what their peer-status is. There is fear in putting yourself out there on social media and they hope for lots of likes and comments and affirmations but there is always the chance that someone could say something mean.
“I think they're addicted to the peer connection and affirmation they're able to get via social media. To know what each other are doing, where they stand, to know how many people like what they posted, to know how many people followed them today and unfollowed them ... that I think is highly addictive."
Negative influences. The AAP says increased exposure to television or computers may influence a child's opinion about things like junk food, alcohol, tobacco use or aggressive behavior. For example, the food in commercials aimed at kids is often high in sugar, fat or salt. And for older kids, video game ads and movie trailers may glorify violence.
Attention disorders. Smartphones can cause attention problems in kids of all ages. And in the youngest kids, parents’ own phone use can contribute to their children’s attention issues. A small 2015 study showed that when parents stop focusing on or playing with a baby to turn to their phone screen, the baby may mimic that behavior by playing with toys (or screens) for only a short period of time.
And another 2015 study showed that in people of all ages, including teens, heavy internet and phone users are more likely to lose concentration, forget information, have poor spatial awareness and make mistakes — even at times when they’re not connected to the internet or using their phones. These “cognitive failures,” as the study’s author calls them, may include missing appointments, failing to notice signs on the road, daydreaming during conversations and forgetting why they went from one part of the house to another.
Screen time recommendations by age
The AAP recommends no screen time at all for children under 2, and only an hour or two a day for children over two. However, the organization is revising those guidelines and expects to issue new ones by October 2016.
"While we acknowledged that mobile and interactive screens have become ubiquitous in children's lives, we did not advocate for their wholesale adoption. I suspect that when [the new recommendations] do come out, the statements will be highly conservative, reinforcing much of what we have said in the past about the known effects of electronic media use on child health and development," David Hill, chairman of the AAP Council on Communications and Media and a member of the AAP Children, Adolescents and Media Leadership Working Group, told NPR.
Tips for reducing screen time
Put down your own phone. "Demonstrate your own mindfulness in front of your children by putting down your phone during meals or whenever they need your attention," Hill said in his interview with NPR.
Praise their "offline" behavior. When you see them riding a bike or coloring, tell them how much you like what they're doing and ask them questions about it. "These conversations will help them focus on the joys of the 'real' world, and they will notice that their activity attracts your attention," Hill said.
Set limits, and stick to them. As you decide on limits, ask your kids what they think is fair. Even if you don't use their suggestions, asking them helps them feel heard and gives them input. And if they break the rules, enforce the punishment you set forth when making the house rules. Maybe they have to do more chores. Maybe their phone gets taken away. Whatever it is, stick to your guns.
Trim TV time. Don't keep televisions in children's bedrooms. Don't let kids watch TV during meals or while doing homework. And don't keep the TV on for background noise. If you're going to watch a show, decide on the show ahead of time and turn off the TV when it's over.
If you can't reduce, at least monitor closely. One surprising — and welcome! — finding from that CNN study was this: "Almost all parents — 94 percent — underestimated the amount of fighting happening over social media. Despite that finding, parents that tried to keep a close eye on their child's social media accounts had a profound effect on their child's psychological well-being." One expert even said that parental monitoring "effectively erased" the negative effects of their kids' online conflicts.