Is Too Much Screen Time Bad for Kids?
Parents hear a lot about how screen time affects children (and adults, too), but how unhealthy is it, really? And how much screen time, is too much? At our house my three kids play devices maybe once or twice a week while we’re waiting at a sibling’s sports practice or I take a work call, but we keep devices in a high cabinet out of reach and don’t watch television every day.
This changes based on whether and the season (i.e., snow storms and being stuck inside or spring break and needing a break from one another), but my husband and I are on the same page about one thing, which is ”Being outside and physical activity always comes before any electronic use”.
We both came to the same conclusion after reading several articles to curb our own electronic usage, and decided it was equally important, if not more, for our kids.
But, before you decide to lay down any ground rules on screen time at your home, let’s first talk about the connection between screen time and adverse effects it has on sleep, vision, physical health, mental health, and friendships and family relationships once you exceed the 60 minute threshold of daily usage.
If you want more help knowing how to safely navigate social media apps and the Internet, the Online Safety Handbook gives you guidelines for setting safe online use, dangers inside the most 31 popular apps, safety filters and protective safeguards parents can install on devices and home WIFI to block unsafe content, and workarounds kids use these days that parents need to be aware of.
Screen Time Has Replaced Traditional Playtime
In the last decade, screen time on tablets, gaming, watching movies and television, using phones and other devices, has replaced more traditional childhood activities like you and I, as adults likely experienced. Studies show that today’s children spend less time outside and engage in less physical activity than previous generations. Recently, the American Academy of Paediatrics issued a recommendation urging doctors to prescribe playtime to children. They cited screen time as one key reason children are playing less.
Technology and structured “free time” has replaced playing in the backyard, riding bikes, and family walks for example, but so have the scientifically proven benefits of health, immune system and development that come along with agenda-less time, natural sunlight and face-to-face interaction. Today’s children do less socializing and have far less face-to-face interactions which result in less meaningful relationships and connections to friends, and even immediate family. Here are the most significant and impactful effects on mental and physical health when screen time goes unchecked or exceeds one hour per day:
1) Decline in Physical Health
This research study found today’s generation of children spend half the time their parents did playing outside and are less physically fit than their parent’s generation. Another report by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC), found that more than half of adolescents aged 12 to 15 are considered physically unfit. Research shows the clear correlation between increased usage of electronic devices makes a user (children and adults alike) more sedentary and when you move less, you also tend to eat more mindlessly when engaged in screen time (including TV, not just limited to tablets, etc.), instead choosing to reach for less healthy, make poorer food choices and overeat. They’re also exposed to more marketing for unhealthy food which sways their decision making when it’s time to eat. These unhealthy lifestyle choices can lead to serious health problems like obesity, higher levels of abdominal fat, insulin resistance, and an increased risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.
Devices are sedentary in nature, meaning to use them, you need to be sitting, lying around and not moving. Now think about your day and your child’s day. Most people spent the majority of their time sitting in school or at a desk, and then when you add time doing the same using your devices, the lack of physical movement can lead to poor muscle development and weight gain. It’s been studied that the positive effects of being outside in a green environment are important for brain development, mental health and happiness. When you’re inside looking at a screen, you’re deprived of time in nature and free play. Physical activity is also essential for brain health; it’s necessary for developing and mastering physical coordination, social skills, new neuron connections, motor skills and also, confidence. When kids aren’t getting enough physical activity, and spend hours each day sitting in front of, or with a device in hand, their physical and brain health declines.
2) Sleep Problems
Many people know how important a daily routine is for sleep, especially the younger a child is, but are you aware of the direct connection between electronic device use and sleep problems?
Here’s why using devices daily can cause a headache at bedtime, and staying asleep all night long.https://8251121b7d6936ebc0cf25fd0526b1f7.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
When you use a device, particularly when it’s evening and close to bedtime, it can make it harder to fall asleep, and stay asleep. This is because devices and even lights, emit a type of blue light that makes the brain think it’s daytime and when the brain thinks it’s still daytime, it doesn’t start getting ready for sleep as it naturally would otherwise. It’s a good idea to start shutting off electronics including the television at least an hour before bedtime so the body can begin to emit signals to the brain that it’s getting tired, and let the natural circadian rhythm do its job. Once kids are asleep, you want to make sure they stay asleep, right? Electronics with pinging notifications of texts, social media, alerts, ringtones and other sounds can wake up kids (and adults) and make it harder for them to fall back asleep. The minute they click on a device to check a notification or text, which again, is emitting blue light, it wakes up the brain, and disrupts the sleep cycle, making it difficult to drift back to sleep. Night time interruptions and problems falling asleep directly impact a child’s mood, behaviour, ability to focus and can cause more sleep problems the next day.
Children need more sleep than adults, and when devices cause sleep problems, this becomes especially problematic.
Kids who lose out on even 30 minutes of sleep can show signs of minor sleep deprivation the next day, but the compounding effect over time, can lead to mental and physical health problems.
3) Vision Issues
The more time children spending looking at screens, the more likely they are to have vision-related problems including the following:
- Near sightedness: Exposure to natural light outdoors is important for developing eyes, and for overall health. When kids spending more time indoors and excessive screen time, studies have found they are more likely to develop near sightedness (myopia.)The rate of near sightedness has increase dramatically in the past 30 years, and since screens of many forms have become a part of daily life.
- Dry Eye: long stretches of looking at screen can cause the eyes to blink far less, and in turn, causes eyes to dry out and become irritated. When your eye blinks, it lubricates the eye and when the eye doesn’t blink, the eye doesn’t have a clear and stable tear film to prevent drying out. This can also lead to difficulty tolerating contacts.
- Eye Fatigue: Just like the brain and body need time to rest, so does a person’s eyes. When kids are intensely focusing on a screen, they can quickly lose track of time and the prolonged close-focus attention causes glare and excessive eye strain.
It’s recommended that everyone who used a screen should look away every 20 minutes for at least 20 seconds, and focus on something in the distance to avoid eye fatigue. Also, when looking at a screen, position the device looking slightly down at it, not up and adjust lighting so there isn’t glare on the screen which can contribute to eye fatigue.
4) Mental Health
Several recent studies found a strong connection between screen time and an increased risk of mental health problems in children and teenagers including higher rates of anxiety, depression, and diagnosis of ADHD.
A new, large-scale study set out to answer a big, important question: how does screen time affect psychological well-being throughout childhood? in kids ages 2 – 17.
The study looked at a range of electronic use including computers, electronic devices, cell phones, television and video games.
Here’s what the study found:
- Children used screen on average of just over three (3) hours per day.
- Time spent using electronics increased with age; high-school teens average more than four (4) hours of daily screen time.
- Kids who use electronics more than one (1) hour per day showed more psychological distress and diminished well-being.
The study also found that children who used electronics for more than 1 hour a day:
- Have less self-control,
- Are more likely to be agitated,
- Have less emotional stability,
- Are more likely to argue with their parents,
- Have a harder time making friends,
- Are more distracted,
- Showed less curiosity about learning and of the world around them,
- And are more likely to give up on tasks they found challenging or before they completed the task.
The results also showed different responses to regular screen time based on age.
- More likely to lose their temper
- Showed more anxiety and anger when they were asked to switch their focus from one activity to another
- Showed a significant impact on self-control
- Harder time sitting still
- Difficultly paying attention and focusing on a task
- Harder time finishing a task
The negative psychological effects of increased screen time were more substantial among older kids.
- More likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression
- Heavy users (7 or more hours per day… think, regularly checking social media) of social media were twice as likely to be diagnosed with:
- Depression or anxiety
- Treated by a mental health professional
- Take medication for behavioural or psychological issues
5) Friendships and Family Connections Suffer
Technology has its benefits and is great at bringing people together and stay connected, especially for family and friends who live far away.
However, when kids are developing social skills to find, create, nurture and maintain friendships and connections, these interactions should take place face-to-face.
Social media and technology use, has been shown through research to potentially create social disconnection, negatively effecting the development of social and relationship building skills.
Kids who use electronics excessively, have a harder time understanding non-verbal body and social cues, or how to engage with others if their relationships, because technology based interactions can’t match the real thing.
Non-verbal cues are an important part of social communication, and being weak in this area can create life-long difficulties for grown adults in forming relationships, and communicating in friendships and work environments with others
Excessive device use and screen time also reduces quality family time and causes disconnection between parents and children, which can lead to trust issues, behavior problems, lying, backtalk and disrespect.
This also goes both ways.
In a 2015 survey by AVG Technologies, 33% of children reported feeling unimportant when their parents looked at their smartphones during meals or when playing together. Even replying to a quick text message could send the message to your child that your phone is more important than he or she is.
6) Learned Violent Behavior
Kids who are exposed to violent television shows, movies, music, and video games can become desensitized to it. Eventually, they may use violence to solve problems and may imitate what they see on TV, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Dangers Inside of Social Media Apps & Internet Programs
It’s hard to say what’s the right age for allowing your child to be on social media, but you can bet they’ll want to use the same apps and social networks as their friends to connect outside of school.
After all, social media like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat have become a major part of modern communication.
There are many reasons social media can be safe and fun, but there are also plenty of reasons why it can be a dangerous playground for kids, younger children and teens.
No matter the age of children, it’s important to establish and follow important rules for social media safety.
The Online Safety Handbook will help you establish safe rules for being online and using electronics, as well as what apps to download and steer clear of.
Establishing Daily Screen Time Limits for Kids
Scientists have found a clear tipping point where daily screen time teeters into negative consequences.
They found that children who use electronics for one hour or less daily, have the same well-being, as well as normal level of anxiety and depression, as children who weren’t exposed to screens at all during the day.
One hour per day spread between television, tablets, phone usage, gaming systems and even portable entertainment centers in your car.
60 minutes, that’s all you have before unhealthy psychological effects becomes harmful to sleep, physical and mental well-being and even the connection you have with your child.
1) Set Family Rules With Electronics
You might have noticed that telling your child to turn off his video game or step away from his kindle, won’t do anyone any good but incite an argument or disgruntled child.
It’s important for you to set healthy limits on your electronics use for your own sake, as well as your child’s sake.
Here are a few rules you might want to establish to curb daily screen time:
- No digital devices during family meals including breakfast, lunch and dinner
- No screen time in the car
- No screen time when you have visitors or family over
- No screens allowed in bedrooms or bathrooms
- No electronics use during family nights
- No electronics allowed unless homework is finished and chores are completed
2) Take a Once-a-Week Digital Detox
Consider a once-a-week digital detox for the whole family. Establish one day a week – we like to do Sundays because its a day we can always spend together as a family – and have a screen-free day where everyone commits to unplugging and keeping the television off all day long.
A digital detox is good for everyone’s physical, mental and emotional health, as well as your family’s connections.
3) Laying the Groundwork for Screen Time Limits
Here are suggestions to setting limits and a full article on how to establish screen time rules without a fight. The sooner you establish ground rules, and stick with them (this is the most important part), the easier they become to follow when they’re a hard rule.
- Model moderate screen use for your kids. Children will always follow behaviour, instead of what you tell them to do. If you’re on your phone or computer all the time, they’ll follow your lead. Show your children, by using your own behaviour, how to live a rich and healthy life where habits are practiced in moderation.
- Stop all electronic use at least one (1) hour before bedtime.
- Set a limit on daily screen time. Make it clear to your kids and stick to it.
- Set timers on devices to shut off once the screen time limit has been hit.
- Turn off your home’s Wi-Fi after a certain time of day (for example, turn off Wi-Fi after 7pm so everyone in the home is device-free.)
- Don’t allow electronics in kid’s bedrooms or the bathroom – only use them in common areas or one designated spot where others are. Behind closed doors is where inappropriate interactions and pictures happen!
- Establish screen-free zones: no smartphone use for anyone in the family in the car, for example, at restaurants, or at the dinner table.
- Devices can be used after chores, homework, reading, playing outside, physical activity and other means of learning and activity have been explored. The point is to spend less time overall on devices and find other ways to spend your time without electronics in hand.
- Give kids developmentally appropriate activities such as coloring, playing with toys, building, riding their bike, playing with friends, before devices are ever used as an entertainment option.
- Make sure kids have other interests outside of screens that they choose to engage in.
- Get up and move periodically to avoid sitting for too long – this goes for adults in the workplace too!
- Set a rule that no new apps can be added to a device without a parent’s permission and that parents should review each app and program thoroughly before it’s downloaded.
- Avoid holding devices close to the head and eyes for long periods of time.
- Set privacy blocks, filters and safeguards to your home’s Wi-Fi and all devices. You can find safe app and internet guidelines, 31 app warnings and how to set up privacy filters in the Online Safety Handbook.