Screen Time for Kids. How Much Is Too Much?

Smartphones, laptops, tablets, TV—technology brings the world to kids’ fingertips. How do zebras get stripes? What is a solar eclipse? What book should I read next? What is the square root of 77? What ingredients do I need to make a red velvet cake? There’s no denying that devices are valuable learning and entertainment tools. The caveat? Kids’ screen time should be monitored and limited. Otherwise, technologies can become liabilities rather than assets.

Experts Agree: Most Kids Spend Far Too Much Time With Screens

Estimates vary, but the results of studies looking at how much time kids spend in front of screens are eye-opening. One study, conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, concluded that kids ages 8 through 18 spent about 7.5 hours using “entertainment media,” 4.5 hours watching television, 1.5 hours in front of a computer, and more than an hour playing video games. By contrast, kids in the same age range spent less than half an hour per day reading.

Risks of Unlimited Device Use

Most screen time is sedentary time, with some exceptions such as Pokémon Go and Nintendo’s Wii Fit. Childhood obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s; one in five school-aged children is obese. Parents should make sure their kids power off and take time to be physically active each day. Kids should also turn off and hand over their devices at a reasonable hour, so they get the recommended amount of sleep (eight to ten hours per night).

Weight gain, loss of sleep, and less time to read aren’t the only risks of excess screen time. Research shows that excessive screen time may cause damage to the brain and decrease some kids’ abilities to read nonverbal emotional cues, a critical social skill.

UCLA researchers studied two groups of sixth-graders: one attending a camp that didn’t allow electronic devices and the other remaining at home where they used their devices as usual (typically four and a half to five hours per day). After five days, all the kids were shown 48 photos of faces as well as videos and asked to identify what emotions the subjects were expressing. The kids who attended camp scored significantly higher than those who did not.

Parents Should Be “Media Mentors”

Last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released updated media-use guidelines for children, breaking down the recommendations by age. The AAP recommends avoiding most digital media other than video conferencing and Skyping until age two. Children ages two to five should be limited to one hour of quality, educational, supervised screen time per day. Younger children are especially vulnerable to becoming overstimulated by too much screen time, and that can lead to anxiety, sleep difficulties, and trouble forming emotional bonds.

For kids aged 5 to 18, the AAP no longer specifies a universal limit, noting that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. (That’s in contrast to previous guidelines specifying a maximum of two hours of screen time per day.) Instead, parents should develop and enforce limits for older kids. Children who are physically and socially active, completing their homework and doing well in school, and getting 8 to 12 hours of sleep may be able to handle more screen time than children struggling in one of those areas. Balance is key.

The AAP also recommends removing devices from children’s bedrooms one hour before bedtime and having media-free family dinners or areas of the home.

Monitoring what kids are viewing is as important as limiting how often they’re viewing it. What is appropriate for an 18-year-old may not be appropriate for a 12-year-old. Some content is inappropriate, suggestive, and potentially dangerous regardless of a child’s age. It’s important for parents to discuss the importance of online privacy, the dangers of sexting, and the need to refrain from (and report) cyberbullying.

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