When my daughter was 3 years old, she came home from preschool talking about zombies.
What bothered me was not that her classmates had taught her a word that I did not want her to learn yet. I was more concerned to discover that her 3- and 4-year-old classmates were watching “Star Wars,” zombie movies and more. I was also upset to find out that many of her friends were spending two or more hours a day watching television or playing video games.
I am not a parent who thinks that all screen time is evil. After all, who of my generation didn’t learn how a bill becomes law or all about adverbs from watching “Schoolhouse Rock” between cartoons? Yet we have all noticed that society is changing rapidly in many ways and it is possible that screen time is one of the drivers behind those changes, both good and bad.
Technology can be pretty fantastic, a source of communication, entertainment and information. You might even be reading this online right now.
However, there have been many studies looking at the effects of ever increasing amounts of screen time for children and even for adults. When you include time spent on computers, tablets, mobile phones and video games with time spent in front of televisions, the average for children in the United States is currently 5 to 7 hours a day and 8.5 hours for adults.
We are seeing a link between increased screen time, decreased physical activity, and an increase in obesity and obesity-related health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure and low self-esteem. In children, connections have also been made between screen time and irregular sleep, behavior problems, impaired academic performance and acceptance of violence as a normal way to solve problems.
The more time we spend in front of a screen, the less time we spend moving around doing things, playing, cleaning, exercising, gardening, talking to each other, etc.
We all need time to relax and wind down (grown-ups and kids), and there is nothing wrong with watching an episode of a favorite show, or spending a half-hour playing a video game. But it is easy for those activities to consume an entire afternoon or evening.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 2, stating that “infants and toddlers have a critical need for direct interaction with parents and other regular caregivers for healthy brain growth.” For children older than 2, the AAP recommends not more than two hours of any type of screen time per day. You may need to allow more computer time for homework as your kids grow up.
Limiting screen time for our kids and for ourselves is not easy. Here are some tips to help if you would like your family to make changes.
• No televisions, phones, tablets or computers in bedrooms.
• Turn off all screens during mealtimes.
• Do not watch TV, play video games or have phones on during homework.
• Do not leave the TV on for background noise.
• Decide which program(s) to watch ahead of time and turn off the TV when the program is over.
• Have everyone in the family keep track of how much time is spent in front of a screen and then try to spend the same amount of time doing something active.
• Co-view or preview programs your children watch.
Sometimes it feels like our computers, phones, and TVs direct our choices, free time and everything else. I hope these tips can help you unplug, reconnect and gain control over how screen time affects you and those you love.
Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in Today/Live Well.