Screen time on electronic devices has become such a routine part of work, school, communication and recreation, it can be difficult to recognize when and how to turn off our screens. There is rising evidence pointing towards negative effects of excessive screen time on the mental and physical wellness of children and adults alike. It’s important to take a look at how we use our technology so we take advantage of its benefits and minimize harm to our health.
Four Major Risks of Excessive Screen Time
Screen time has increasingly replaced physical activity in both children and adults, increasing their risk of obesity and its associated health concerns such as diabetes. Much TV and online media expose viewers to food advertising and facilitate mindless eating while watching.
Children and adults who use electronic devices frequently have more difficulty sleeping. The blue light emitted by electronic screens suppresses melatonin, a chemical that our brains release each night to help us sleep. Violent or exciting shows or video games are emotionally arousing, which can make it difficult to fall asleep. Worries about responding to online messages, texts or social media posts can cause trouble falling or staying asleep, especially if devices are kept in the bedroom.
Virtual reality is increasingly used as a replacement for real-life experience. People of all ages spend less time engaging in meaningful experiences with family and friends, compromising their personal development and social skills. Adolescents who spend excessive time online may increase their risk for substance abuse, inappropriate sexual behavior, self-injury and disordered eating. They also increase the vulnerability of their personal safety and privacy, including posting inappropriate images or information about themselves or being solicited by online predators.
Older adolescents and adults who use a lot of social media are at greater risk for depression and decreased life satisfaction as they frequently compare themselves to their peers. Video gaming can become an addiction in children and adults, resulting in more impulsive behavior, decreased attention, depression, and irritable moods.
How Much Screen Time is Enough?
In October 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its recommendations for the amount of screen time appropriate for children of various ages. Children under 18 months old should have no screen time except for video-chatting with friends and relatives. Children 18 to 24 months old should have less than one hour of screen time per day. Children two to five years old should have one hour or less of screen time per day. In the 18 month- to five year-old group, the media viewed should be high-quality programming, such as TV shows produced by PBS (Sesame Street, etc.). Furthermore, parents or other caregivers should be watching alongside the child to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
What about older kids? The AAP’s general recommendation for children between five and 18 years old is no more than two hours of screen time per day. That means time spent apart from school obligations, such as watching TV, surfing the Internet for fun, playing video games, using social media or texting with friends. I believe this is reasonable guidance for adults as well.
Seven Tips for Managing Screen Time
When it comes to regulating screen time, each family needs to examine its values and practical needs to determine what is appropriate for its members. However, here are some general recommendations that seem reasonable for all of us to implement.
- Set firm time limits around media use.
- Assign media-free times such as dinner, driving and parent-child playtime. Putting electronic devices away in a secure place during screen-free time may help avoid conflict and temptation.
- Keep televisions and other electronic devices out of bedrooms, especially in the case of children.
- Avoid using electronic devices for at least one hour before bedtime.
- Monitor what your children are watching on their devices and don’t let young children choose media by themselves.
- Participate regularly in screen-free meaningful activities and social interactions. Set aside time each day to exercise and spend time outdoors.
- Talk with children about the content they are viewing on their devices. Communicate openly about safe online practices and pitfalls such cyberbullying, sexting, and online solicitations. Create a Family Media Plan