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Screens are a part of life for just about everyone. We work on them, play on them and connect on them. Technology use by children does have benefits, including access to information and social connections. But it also has plenty of drawbacks including sleep disruption and physical inactivity. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than two hours a day of screen time is linked to childhood obesity. And professionals now recognize that spending too much time with video games can lead to addiction.
But limiting screen time can be even more challenging during the winter months when days are shorter and it’s so cold outside. Our children may be less active and more likely to turn to screens large and small for entertainment. The keys to healthy screen use are moderation, setting age-appropriate time limits, developing a media use plan as a family and finding engaging alternatives to screen time.
What Counts as Screen Time?
The options for spending time in front of a screen have exploded in recent years. Many parents grew up with a handful of television channels, while the options for our children seem unlimited. For the purposes of setting limits, screen time can include:
- Broadcast and streamed television and movies. Even with the rise in small screens, televisions still account for most of our children’s time in front of a screen.
- Video games–single player or interactive involving friends and/or strangers. These can be a great way to connect, but can also lead to addiction and disrupt family life.
- Social media and phone time for teens and tweens. Like video games, social media can be a great connector, but also has risks including cyberbullying and sexual harassment. Some experts are now recommending waiting until eighth grade to give teens access to a smartphone.
Setting Age-Appropriate Rules for Screen Time
Screen time guidelines differ for babies and young children, school-aged children and adolescents.
- The AAP recommends no screen time other than video chats with loved ones for babies under 18 months and very limited screen time before age 2.
- For children ages 2 to 5, the AAP recommends limiting screen time to one hour per day and recommends that parents make sure to choose high-quality programming and watch it with them when possible.
- For children 6 and older, guidelines are more flexible. However, the AAP underscores the importance of making sure screen time is balanced with physical activity, reading and other activities.
- For adolescents, video games and social media often play a big role in social capital, and saying no altogether can create a forbidden fruit situation. However, overuse can lead to addiction, anxiety and depression so making sure your teen uses media in moderation and continues other active pursuits is key.
What Are Some Good Alternatives to Screen Time?
Screen time is best when it’s used in addition to rather than instead of all of the other activities that are so important for our children. Here are a few excellent screen time alternatives:
- Build in time for physical activity–whether it’s organized sports or family walks, rock climbing or bike riding.
- Keep reading: there’s no substitute for a good old-fashioned book. Reading to your child or having them read independently is an ideal activity right before bedtime since screens before bed can disrupt sleep patterns.
- Other activities that parents and children can do together, including art, crafts, music, building projects and cooking are excellent alternatives to screen time that promote creativity and engagement.
- During the summer, high-quality camps focused on activities and the natural world are a great chance to unplug, spend time with friends and be active.
Is It Okay to Use Screen Time as a Reward or Punishment?
Many parents find using screen time as a carrot to encourage good behavior (or taking away screen time for bad behavior) to be an effective tool in managing their children’s behavior. However, some studies have shown that using screen time as a reward or punishment (also known as e-discipline) can actually lead to children exceeding recommended screen time limits. We’ve found that the best approach to doling out screen time is creating (and sticking to) a more comprehensive family plan
Screen Time: Make a Plan
One of the AAP’s most important screen time guidelines is making a family media plan. A well-considered plan allows families to enjoy screen time and use media as entertainment and a social creative outlet while preventing it from getting in the way of physical activity or other pursuits. Here are just a few considerations for making a solid media plan:
- Make sure that sleep remains a priority and keep televisions and devices out of kids’ bedrooms.
- Set aside media free times including dinner and driving. Use these times as an opportunity for conversation and connection.
- Talk about appropriate use of social media and respectful treatment of others online.
- For older children, respectfully monitor social media use and use a network of other trusted adults who can help keep an eye on your teen or tween from a distance.
- Be consistent about hours allotted each day for non-school screen time.
- Set a good example and follow your own rules. Parents can get hooked on screens too, and our own behavior can often be the best predictor of our children’s habits.
Establishing Healthy Screen Time Practices: Your Pediatrician is Your Partner
At Loudoun Pediatric Associates, we believe in the importance of keeping kids active and engaged in family life and the world around them. As parents and practitioners, we understand that screens are here to stay, but we recognize that a meaningful plan is the best way to keep media from taking over our lives. If you suspect your child has a gaming disorder or social media-linked anxiety or depression, we can help you find the right counselor to treat the problem. We’ll also talk about screen time at your children’s check ups and can help families set up a media plan that works.