Screen Time: Benefits, Risks, and When to Draw the Line

Television, social media, smartphones, tablets. In today’s world, technological advances have made us heavily reliant on our different screens. In fact, more than 64% of American adults now own a smartphone and the average American household has more televisions than people (Minnesota Department of Health, 2016).

There are a lot of differing opinions out there about kids and their media use. As parents, we are constantly asking ourselves, “How much is too much? Is screen time horrible for my child’s development? What about educational programming?”

The good news is: exposure to electronic screens is not all doom and gloom; it actually has its benefits, if it is limited. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends less than two hours per day of screen time for children ages two to five. When it comes to children older than five, AAP suggests setting your own healthy limit. For babies from birth to eighteen months, screen time is not recommended at all.

Most of the time, screen time is associated with negative effects. While there are certainly unfavorable consequences with too much exposure, there are many benefits to a healthy media presence.

In a journal published by the AAP, Media Use in School-Age Children and Adolescents, both traditional and social media can provide exposure to new ideas and information. For example, my daughter is three years old and loves the show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on PBS. This educational program has taught her new things like how to deal with jealousy. For older kids, exposure to new information could include being aware of current world issues.

Two young girls stare at a tablet

Research has shown that 76% of teenagers use at least one social media app. Due to the increase in social platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the opportunities for community participation and civic engagement have expanded. There are Facebook groups for almost every city and community where residents can voice their concerns and help each other out in times of need. Not to mention, social media helps family and friends stay connected from miles away. Different time zones? No problem. Moving across the world? Be sure to post pictures to Facebook!

Social media has also been shown to foster social inclusion among those individuals who may feel excluded. LGBTQ kids, teens with disabilities, minority groups, and more are finding others that they can relate to and share their struggles with. This can significantly improve the lives of our youth by reducing depression.

While these benefits seem great, there are also many risks we need to consider when it comes to screen usage. Let’s start with the main concern of American society today: obesity. Research to determine the exact cause of obesity is ongoing, however, studies have shown that those who watch more than five hours per day of TV are at a five times greater risk of obesity. TV is a triple threat, guaranteeing increased caloric intake while engrossed in the entertainment, advertisements for unhealthy foods, and decreased physical activity.

High social media use has been shown to negatively affect sleep as well. “Exposure to light (particularly blue light) and activity from screens before bed affects melatonin levels and can delay or disrupt sleep” (AAP, 2016). In turn, this can negatively affect school performance.

Little boy stares at screen in the dark

Lastly, there is always the concern of internet addiction or problematic internet use. The constant stimulation offered by the internet is the perfect outlet for adolescents. If screen time is not limited, kids and teens can start to prefer the online world and disconnect socially.

What can we do to make sure our children reap the benefits of digital media and avoid its hazards? It starts with us, as parents. We are not off the hook here! How many times have you been engaging with your child and you receive a text message or email that you immediately tend to? Personally, I know this happens to me way too often. For whatever reason, I feel the need to respond to a text message or a Facebook notification right away, even if it it takes my attention away from my children.

Parental engagement is critical to a child’s emotional and social development. One research study found that when a parent turned their attention to a mobile device while in their child’s presence, the parent was less likely to talk to the child (AAP, 2016). Distractions like these may have short- and long-term negative effects.

Little girl looking bored while her parents look at their phones

According to studies done by the American Psychological Association, children were more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors (jumping off moving swings at the park or sliding down head first, to name a few) when their caregiver was distracted. In this particular study, caregivers were distracted 74% of the time and electronic device usage accounted for 30% of that figure.

Another study looked at parents’ smartphone usage and its effect on the child’s behavior. Jenny Radesky, MD, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, and her team observed 55 groups of parents eating with their children at fast food restaurants. The researchers recorded the behaviors of the children and the adults, including how frequently the adults were on their phones during the meal. They found that 40% of the adults took out their phones at some point during the meal. What’s more, 40% of those that took out their phones, were fully engrossed with it during the entire meal, ignoring the children altogether. The adults that were most absorbed in their phones were also more likely to respond harshly to their children.

We are biggest role models for our children. If we spend most of our time on our smartphones scrolling, texting, and emailing, then what are we teaching them? We’re showing them that it’s okay to be constantly distracted by these small screens and miss out on the world around them.

So, what actions can we take to change things? How do we set limitations for our children AND for ourselves when it comes to digital media? Here are some recommendations from the AAP for children:

  • Address what type of and how much media are used and what media behaviors are appropriate for each child or teenager, and for parents. Place consistent limits on hours per day of media use as well as types of media used.
  • Promote that children and adolescents get the recommended amount of daily physical activity (one hour) and adequate sleep (eight to twelve hours, depending on age).
  • Designate media-free times together (e.g., family dinner) and media-free locations (e.g., bedrooms) in homes. Promote activities that are likely to facilitate development and health, including positive parenting activities, such as reading, teaching, talking, and playing together.
  • Engage in selecting and co-viewing media with your child, through which your child can use media to learn and be creative, and share these experiences with your family and your community.

As for us parents, clinicians recommend we do the following:

  • Get up 30 minutes early to check email and tend to start-of-day online tasks before waking up the kids.
  • Keep meal times, drive times and bedtimes tech-free, allowing families to chat about their day or sit quietly and daydream.
  • Tell your children what you’re doing on your phone, to help them feel less isolated. If you work from your phone, for example, you can let them know you are answering an email for work.
  • Practice and observe a digital fast once a week (24 hours where everyone turns off their devices).

These are just some recommendations put together by professionals to help parents make a healthy digital media habit for their children. Obviously, it may be impossible to do every one of these things at once, so ease into it. Simply start by limiting screen time to the recommended daily amount and go from there.

Technology and digital media have improved the lives of many individuals and made everyday tasks much easier. It’s impossible, and not necessary, to stay away from digital media altogether, but if we teach our children how to have a healthy balance with screen time, we can avoid the risks associated with overdoing it.

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