By Amy Harris
Regardless of where they are from, almost every parent struggles to limit how long their children spend in front of screens. However, setting healthy boundaries can be challenging. Screens are everywhere: on our phones, in our living rooms and bedrooms, in the classroom, and even on some wrists in the form of smartwatches. And the time spent on those activities is growing. In the one-year period between the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, and February 2021, the number of children spending four or more hours a day on screens doubled; half of all adults surveyed spent four or more hours online every day.
But we know that too much screen time is not healthy for any of us, young or old. Long hours sitting can cause posture problems, neck pain, eye damage, depression, and anxiety in children and adults. Spending hours in front of a screen each day can lead to obesity (unhealthy weight gain), sleep problems, behavior problems, delayed learning and language development, delayed social-emotional learning, and possibly even violent or aggressive behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests parents prevent their children who are younger than 2 years old from spending any time at all on screens. Pediatricians recommend that children older than 2 spend no more than one to two hours of screen time daily.
Babies and toddlers can be most seriously harmed by screen time because they need human interaction to learn. But older children suffer, too. Elementary students who have TVs or other screens in their bedrooms have been found to perform worse on standardized tests than those who don’t have screens in their bedrooms. And experts theorize that constant passive absorption of on-screen images, video games, and messages makes it harder for younger children to focus and stay attentive and may be linked with an increase in attention problems in children. Digital gaming is more likely than social media or video streaming to cause something called internet addiction or problematic internet usage (PIU). And for teenagers, we know that excessive social media consumption (like Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook) can lead to depression, eating disorders, and even violent or aggressive behavior.
Media influences what kids think, feel, and understand about race. The advocacy group Common Sense Media released its Inclusion Imperative report in October 2021, and showed that mainstream screen media portrays people of color or immigrants infrequently, and when it does, people from these groups are often negatively stereotyped. Research shows that increased exposure to such negative or incorrect media stereotypes can increase feelings of alienation among immigrants towards the host society, and foster their social segregation.
But there are some good sides to screen time. Some media can be educational and support children’s social development. And watching English-language television shows and programming can improve language acquisition and ease the acculturation process for immigrants. However, it’s best to stick to the limits set by the medical establishment, and for parents to model good screen behavior for their children, such as turning off the TV and making eye contact with children whenever they are talking to the children or when the children talk to them.
Resources like Common Sense Media provide age-based reviews of movies, TV shows, games, and smartphone applications for free. This can help parents to determine ahead of time what media is healthy and safe. Some parents use parental control settings on their TVs and computers, and preview all video games and smartphone apps before allowing their children to play them.
A tip for limiting screen time is to remove all screens and televisions from bedrooms, and charge phones and tablets in common spaces. Another suggestion is to make a family rule of turning off all screens one hour before bedtime – everyone will sleep better! Also, because the children in families that eat meals together do better in school and have lower risks of depression, teen pregnancy, substance use, and obesity, another idea is to turn off the TV and put away phones while eating meals.
According to pediatrician Michael Rich, Director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health, too much screen time leaves less time for active, creative play. He says that children need time to be bored – that boredom is the space in which creativity and imagination happen. So he suggests setting screen time limits, which could help relieve stress, strengthen family relationships, and go a long way toward having a happy and healthy summer.
Family activities to try instead of screen time
- Go to a local beach or public swimming pool.
- Play in a nearby park or conservation area.
- Develop an “activity menu” that lists a child’s favorite, non-screen-related hobbies (like drawing, sports, reading, or playing with a pet).
- When taking a long drive or traveling, listen to a podcast together. Common Sense Media reviews the best podcasts for families.
- Check out the local library and borrow some new books to read.
- Start a family board game night and cultivate some healthy competition off-screen.
- Turn up the music and have a dance party!