Screen Time and Children

By Dr. Archie L. Bost

I have been asked by many clients about the effects of electronic screen time on children and adults.  I wanted to write this article with the focus on infants, toddlers, and children through the 6th grade.  I sincerely hope that this will be helpful to you as you read.

 "Screen time" is a term used for activities done in front of a screen, such as watching TV, working on a computer, or playing video games. Screen time is sedentary activity, meaning you are being physically inactive while sitting down. Very little energy is used during screen time.

Media is everywhere. TV, Internet, computer, and video games all vie for our children's attention. Information on this page can help parents understand the impact media has in our children's lives, while offering tips on managing time spent with various media. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommendations for parents and pediatricians.

Today's children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones, and other electronic devices. To help kids make wise media choices, parents should monitor their media diet. Parents can make use of established rating systems for shows, movies, and games to avoid inappropriate content, such as violence, explicit sexual content, or glorified tobacco and alcohol use.

Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.

By limiting screen time and offering educational media in non-electronic formats such as books, newspapers, and board games, and watching television with their children, parents can help guide their children's media experience. Putting questionable content into context and teaching kids about advertising contributes to their media literacy.

The AAP recommends that parents establish "screen-free" zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers, or video games in children's bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.

Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child's brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

Most American children spend about 3 hours a day watching TV.  Added together, all types of screen time can total 5 to 7 hours a day.  Too much screen time can:

·         Make it hard for your child to sleep at night

·         Raise your child's risk of attention problems, anxiety, and depression

·         Raise your child's risk of gaining too much weight

 ·         Sitting and watching a screen is time that is not spent being physically active.

·         TV commercials and other screen ads can lead to unhealthy food choices. Most of the time, the foods in ads that are aimed at kids are high in sugar, salt, or fats.  They also tend to eat more when they are watching TV.

Computers can help kids with their schoolwork. But surfing the internet, spending too much time on Facebook, or watching YouTube videos is considered unhealthy screen time.

Some good screen time guidelines are:

·         Children under age 2 should have NO screen time.

·         Limit screen time to 1 or 2 hours a day for children over age 2.

Despite what ads may say, videos that are aimed at very young children do not improve their development but rather hinder greatly their development.

Children who have had a steady diet of screen time will find it very difficult to cut back.  The following are good ways to decrease screen time:

·         Remove the TV or computer from your child's bedroom.

 ·         DO NOT allow TV watching during meals or homework.

·         DO NOT let your child eat while watching TV or using the computer.

 ·         DO NOT leave the TV on for background noise. Turn on the radio instead, or have no background noise.

 ·         Decide which programs to watch ahead of time. Turn off the TV when those programs are over.

 ·         Suggest other activities, such as family board games, puzzles, or going for a walk.

 ·         Keep a record of how much time is spent in front of a screen. Try to spend the same amount of time being active.

 ·         Be a good role model as a parent. Decrease your own screen time to 2 hours a day.

 ·         If it is hard not having the TV on, try using a sleep function so it turns off automatically.

 ·         Challenge your family to go 1 week without watching TV or doing other screen-time activities. Find things to do with your time that get you moving and burning energy.

Dr. Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA, in her study of 6th graders, found reason for alarm. 

Juana Summers said kids are spending more time than ever in front of screens, and it may be inhibiting their ability to recognize emotions, according to new research out of the University of California, Los Angeles.

The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found that sixth-graders who went five days without exposure to technology were significantly better at reading human emotions than kids who had regular access to phones, televisions and computers.

The UCLA researchers studied two groups of sixth-graders from a Southern California public school. One group was sent to the Pali Institute, an outdoor education camp in Running Springs, Calif., where the kids had no access to electronic devices. For the other group, it was life as usual.

At the beginning and end of the five-day study period, both groups of kids were shown images of nearly 50 faces and asked to identify the feelings being modeled. Researchers found that the students who went to camp scored significantly higher when it came to reading facial emotions or other nonverbal cues than the students who continued to have access to their media devices.

"We were pleased to get an effect after five days," says Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA. "We found that the kids who had been to camp without any screens but with lots of those opportunities and necessities for interacting with other people in person improved significantly more."

If the study were to be expanded, Greenfield says, she'd like to test the students at camp a third time — when they've been back at home with smartphones and tablets in their hands for five days.

"It might mean they would lose those skills if they weren't maintaining continual face-to-face interaction," she says.

A Wake-Up Call For Educators

There's a big takeaway for schools, Greenfield says.

"A lot of school systems are rushing to put iPads into the hands of students individually, and I don't think they've thought about the [social] cost," she explains. "This study should be, and we want it to be, a wake-up call to schools. They have to make sure their students are getting enough face-to-face social interaction. That might mean reducing screen time."

The results of the UCLA study seem to line up with prior research, says Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

 "Common sense tells me that if a child's laying on his or her bed and texting friends instead of getting together and saying, 'Hey, what's up,' there's a problem there," she says. "I want people interacting ... on a common-sense level, and an experiential level. It does concern [me]."

Hogan relates the UCLA study's findings back to research on infants.

"When babies are babies, they're learning about human interaction with face-to-face time and with speaking to parents and having things they say modeled back to them," she says. "That need doesn't go away."

How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?

For decades the AAP has warned that children need to cut back on their screen time. The group's latest prescription: Entertainment "screen time" should be limited to two hours a day for children ages 3-18. And, for 2-year-olds and younger, none at all.

The sixth-graders who made up the sample in the UCLA study self-reported that they spent an average of more than four hours on a typical school day texting, watching television, and playing video games.

The San Francisco nonprofit Common Sense Media studies screen time from birth, and, in 2013, found that children under 8 (a younger sample than the kids in the UCLA study) were spending roughly two hours a day in front of a screen.

"If used appropriately, it's wonderful," Hogan says of digital media. "We don't want to demonize media, because it's going to be a part of everybody's lives increasingly, and we have to teach children how to make good choices around it, how to limit it, and how to make sure it's not going to take the place of all the other good stuff out there."