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Screen Time

By Valerie Sprenz, MD FAAP | Pediatrics

“Everything in moderation” has been ascribed to many authors, but it stems back from ancient times. You can argue with it on some levels, (for example, I would argue that one should NEVER use heroin or crystal meth), but I think that it is applicable towards screen time.

What is the definition of screen time? Basically, it is the time spent in front of a screen, whether it is the television, a computer monitor, a smart phone, a tablet, or a video game console.

We are living in an amazing age of technology. With rare exception, most homes have at least one television, and more often than not, several. Computers are ubiquitous, and most people carry smart phones (iPhone or Droid, you take your pick), so that an infinite amount of information and communications is now hand held.

There are many, many good things about technology. I think that the best thing is that information is now widely available to the masses. However, while computers are good, there is a fair amount of bad as well. There is pornography, and even if you are the most passionate defender of the Civil Liberties Union, you will agree that that content is not appropriate for children. While catching up with your best friend from high school is good, some social media sites make it easier for pedophiles to target children. Bullies have been around since the dawn of time, but in my day, even if school was hell for you, at least home was your sanctuary. Not so today, though. With social media, the victimization can continue into your child’s own bedroom. In regards to video games, Minecraft is fun, but some other, (I’m looking at you, Grand Theft Auto) are incredibly violent.

In addition to the negative content that one can find on a screen, what is also a downside in that by spending so much time in front of a screen, people are neglecting other aspects of a healthy lifestyle, such as physical exercise, adequate sleep, and interaction with fellow humans in real life.

So much time in front of screens has harmful impacts in other ways. Checking out the latest posts on Instagram, watching videos on YouTube, and playing Candy Crush can be addicting. Before you know it, you have wasted two hours and the only things that you have moved are your thumbs, and you have created a dent in the couch.

 

Part of childhood means running around, playing, and having fun. I remember as a kid playing kickball on the street, and the group of boys who played hockey in front of my house. As an adult now, when I drive through my neighborhood, I am never interrupting a hockey or a kickball game. The more time a child spends in front of a screen the less physically active he will be. I have had many adolescent patients who come in with the complaint of extreme fatigue, and upon asking a few routine questions, I find out that they are not getting enough sleep, and being on their cellphones into the wee hours of the morning is a major factor. There is scientific evidence that the blue light emitted from computer and television screens disrupts the release of melatonin, the hormone that helps to fall asleep, which leads to insomnia, less sleep, and worsening fatigue. Finally, while we are an increasingly computerized society, there are still times that we interact face to face. It is important that children learn to interact, to hear tones of voice and facial expression.

We are not suggesting that you become a complete Luddite, and cancel your cable account. However, we, and by “we”, I mean the American Academy of Pediatrics; have some recommendations, depending on the age of your child.

1. Less than 18 months of age, avoid use of screen media other than video chatting.

I’ll admit that this is a hard one, as screens are so pervasive in our society. In particular, when it is necessary to entertain or distract the child, (such while waiting at the pediatrician’s office), I have seen many of my patients appeased by videos on YouTube. Ideally, this should be seldom, if ever used.

2. From 18 to 24 months, only high quality programming should be viewed, and parents should watch with their children to help them understand what they are seeing.

In regards to what constitutes “high quality programming”, the AAP specifically mentions the Sesame Workshop and PBS. For my part, I was the original audience for Sesame Street, (born in 1968, and the show started airing in 1969), and I remember loving it. Hell, to this day, I still like watching some of the clips on YouTube. I think that the mark of a good children’s program is that adults can want to watch it as well without sprinting from the room screaming. So Sesame Street yes, but Teletubbies, not so much.

3. From age 2 to 5 years, 1 hour per day, and again, only high quality programming.

4. School age- Consistent limits of time and which types of media should be allowed, with making sure that it does not interfere with sleep and physical activity.

Please note that this recommendation refers to recreational screen time. For many older students, they may be spending time in front of a screen for academic work. In regards to the time limit, two hours per day has been suggested, which I’ll admit is surprising to many of my patients. In my opinion, one exception to this rule is reading for fun on the electronic device. I myself was a voracious reader as a child, (still am), but I’ve adjusted to modern times, and tend to read on my eBooks on my iPad.

As far as other specific guide lines go, the AAP is of the firm opinion that a child’s bedroom should NOT contain a television, and that there should be some areas and times that are strictly media free, such as family meals, and of course, while driving!

Finally, the expression “do as I say, not as I do” is very applicable when raising children. Children learn from example, and if you as a parent are glued to your electronic device 24/7, you can hardly blame them if they do the same. So while this advice is coming from pediatricians, it is applicable to all ages, so give the electronics a break every now and then, and interact on a face-to-face level.