Screen Time and Kids: How Much is Too Much?

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Recent research points to serious health consequences for those kids who log more screen time than they should. Many parents and caregivers are aware that too much screen time is not healthy for kids but may be unsure what to do about it. It is difficult to know exactly how much time constitutes too much. In addition, many of us fail to take into account how many devices our kids are using on a regular basis thus compounding the problem. I struggle with staying on top of my teen’s screen time. I am guilty of allowing far more than I think I should, in many cases right up until bedtime. It takes more vigilance than I often have. Summer time poses its own special challenges. With more unstructured free time and it taking the entire summer for me to even acclimate to my kids not being in school, their screen time usage naturally increases. Also, when I see a parent effectively managing four kids under the age of nine during the end of the month at my local DMV, all due to each of them being mesmerized by their own “device”, I realize what a slippery slope limiting screen time can be.

Current Screen Time Guidelines

The definition of screen time includes any and all activity performed in front of an electronic screen including but not limited to TV, computers, video game playing, and cell phone usage. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AMA), the long-held recommendation for children over the age of two years is one to two hours per day of screen time. No time is recommended for children below the age of two and yet how many times do we witness kids below this age playing with electronics? Children are now acquiring electronic devices at increasingly younger ages, increasing their exposure. Another issue is ineffective parental enforcement (guilty as charged). Today, access to electronic devices is ubiquitous making usage even more difficult to monitor.

Symptoms and Consequences

The warnings are nothing new but the consequences of increased screen time for kids are serious. Lack of sleep, increased risk for anxiety, depression, and mood disorders, and an increased risk of obesity are all common risk factors. However, new research is emerging stating the effects of excessive screen time may also include damage to eyesight, brain changes such as gray matter atrophy or shrinkage, loss of white matter probity, reduced cortical thickness, impaired dopamine function, and damage to the frontal lobes, a key area of the brain that controls cognitive skills like problem-solving and judgment.

Why Managing Screen Time is Important

Keeping kids quiet and occupied by teaching them to self-soothe with an electronic device should never be the focus but oftentimes is because let’s face it, parenting is fucking hard. Sometimes we just need to get through the restaurant meal, grocery store trip or midday conference call in peace. However, quiet contemplation, processing time, daydreaming, and practicing conversational skills are far more imperative lessons that really do need our full attention. These vital soft skills largely determine success in later life and as an adult, I can attest to this. Learning to self-regulate through balancing all aspects of one’s life is crucial for a healthy productive life. One of the problems I see is that our attention as parents has also taken a turn down ADD road because of the sheer number of daily tasks we are called upon to do of which electronics have heavily contributed to.

Are we all fucked or is there something sane we can do to combat this?

Strategies to Reduce Overall Screen Time

It is notoriously difficult in today’s world to keep kids screen time to a minimum. It takes persistence and vigilance but it can start with us parents. Decreasing our usage to less than two hours per day when not working may help. Set a timer. Modeling appropriate behavior such as not using cell phones when driving or in public settings shows kids that there is life outside electronic devices. You will need to plan ahead for this ‘cause it ain’t easy. Other strategies include tracking electronic usage, removing electronic devices from bedrooms, encouraging non-electronic family time, turning off screens when not in use, disabling sound notifications, initiating other activities such as physical activity, board games, or reading books during down time, and creating fun challenges focused on decreasing screen time. But…. with more schools requiring the use of computer devices to complete school work and many even offering them as part of the school curriculum, today’s guidelines may just be outdated and somewhat ineffective. Perhaps the most important ingredient here is continuous reassessment to find what works best for you and your family.

So as not to sound too preachy, here’s what I’ve tried: removing devices from bedrooms, freaking out when my kids don’t obey this rule, limiting screen time to two hours a day when not in school, forgetting the very next day that I limited screen time and then blaming them for not following the rules, modeling the kind of behavior I want them to emulate, fucking up over and over because screens are so addictive, admitting that I am an addict, vowing to re-model better behavior, reading a lot on the topic then expounding on how their brains will shrink and they won’t be as smart as they want to be which will then affect every single area of their life, and finally reminding them that I won’t be around forever and they better get their shit together and learn to auto-regulate.

Again, it ain’t easy. What have you done to decrease your own kids screen usage? Let’s share our ideas. Parents need all the help they can get.

Published in That Odd MomTHATODDMOM