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Screen Time for Children

By Kelli Shidler, M.D.

As a country filled with "movers and shakers," we value multitasking, quick information and "the next big thing." So it isn't surprising that various forms of screen technology have gradually become an integral part of our daily lives, soaking up more and more of our day with each new product.

This technology takeover raises questions pertaining to how much TV children should watch, what media platforms are appropriate for kids and how parents can maintain screen time limits.

What is Screen Time?

Screen time is the amount of time a person spends in front of a screen. Seems simple enough, but as technology has advanced, the concept has become much more complicated. Whereas screen time used to just be the time spent watching TV, now it includes time using:

  • TVs
  • Computers
  • Individual gaming devices
  • Video games
  • Tablets
  • Cell phones

Screen Time Limits

In October 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued updated recommendations for media limitations.

  • Birth to 18 months: Avoid screen time other than video chatting
  • 18 to 24 months: Limited high-quality programming, such as PBS, with a parent present to help the child understand what he or she is seeing
  • 2 to 5 years: One hour of high-quality screen time per day, with parent present to help the child understand and apply what is seen to the world around him or her
  • 6 years and older: Place consistent screen time limits, with special attention to ensure that media is not taking the place of adequate sleep, physical activity or face-to-face social interaction. Two hours or less of screen time is generally recommended.

To ensure that the content being viewed is safe, parents are encouraged to put computers and televisions in a public room and participate in the screen time with their children when possible.

Excessive screen time has been linked to:

  • Poor school performance
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Behavioral issues

Maintaining Screen Time Limits

At first, parents may think limiting screen time is a fairly simple task, but take a few days to monitor exactly how much time your family actually spends in front of a screen and you might be surprised. Remember, screen time includes watching TV shows and movies, playing Xbox or Nintendo DS, responding to texts, looking at Twitter on your smart phone, booking flights, etc.

So how do you limit something that has permeated your life so thoroughly?

  • Create screen-free zones. Ensure that areas like bedrooms and the dinner table do not have access to a computer or TV. Limits for smaller devices, like phones and individual gamers, are best decided on a family-to-family basis, but experts suggest having curfews to keep children from using them all through the night instead of sleeping.
  • Avoid using screen time as a punishment or reward. This only makes the privilege seem more important than it really is.
  • Be prepared with fun alternatives. These can include helping cook dinner, playing with neighborhood kids, reading, playing a sport, going to the zoo or a family game night. If the alternatives are just as fun, the screen time limit will not seem so constricting.
  • Set a good example. It is likely that children will be more open to a screen time limit if they don't observe their parents spending hours upon hours in front of the TV or computer.

Screen Time isn't the Enemy

Though it can often be villainized because of its connections to violence and health problems, screen time isn't all bad. In fact, if used properly it can be beneficial, improving education and communication opportunities.

  • Homework programs and educational TV shows give kids more access to quick assistance and knowledge.
  • Some TV shows can be used as talking topics to teach family values and life lessons such as how to handle relationships and conflict resolution.
  • Screen technology allows speakers that would not be able to travel to classrooms to communicate through programs such as Skype.
  • Computers help us keep in close contact with friends and family that live far away.