Should We Screen Kids’ Screen Time?

When I was a kid, ‘screen time’ referred to time spent perched in front of a TV set watching shows like The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, Three’s Company and The Love Boat. Back then—before remote controls became commonplace—we actually had to get up off our rears to change channels. Today’s kids couldn’t even imagine that!

Remote controls aside, today’s kids are technologically spoiled. Between laptops, desktops, ipads, itouches, iphones, kindles, and nooks to name a few, access to TV shows, movies, videos and video games is literally just a click away. This increased use of, and reliance on, technology has become such a part of our culture that it’s become commonplace to see even a one or two year-old playing with—sometimes even knowing how to use—an ipad or a similar device.

But is this fast pass to all things ‘screen’ a good thing, or will it ultimately prove to diminish children’s overall physical and mental health and well-being?

Although we don’t really know kids’ actual daily screen use, a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation Study estimates that eight to 18 year olds spend about 7.5 hours a daily watching TV and movies, and using computers, video games and cell phones. In contrast, new recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) call for less than two hours of screen time daily for children aged two and older, and no screen time for those younger than two years old.

A recent study published in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism found that watching TV, playing video games, or using the computer was positively associated with waist circumference and negatively associated with HDL (good) cholesterol levels among eight to 10 year-old children. Previous studies suggest that prolonged TV viewing increases the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. More TV time has also been linked with risk factors for cardiovascular disease, lower energy expenditure, and excess intake of high calorie, high fat food. Research cited in the AAP’s new policy statement also suggests that increased TV use may lead to decreased school achievement, and that overstimulation from screens may contribute to behavioral or sleep problems and even eating disorders.

To determine how viewing TV compares to using other devices, researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital used a new research method to track moment-by-moment use of electronic media by young people. They found that paying attention to TV is strongly associated with higher Body Mass Index (BMI). Surprisingly, they found no link between BMI and attention to video games or computers, despite how long they were used by kids. In a press release for the study published in Pediatrics, the lead author said, “The association between TV and increased BMI may be explained by exposure to TV ads for high calorie, nutritionally questionable foods, and eating while watching TV, which distracts from natural signals the body gives for when it is hungry or satisfied.”

Only time will tell how all this screen time will affect kids’ physical and psychological growth and development. For now, it’s prudent for us parents to set limits on tv and all other screen use and to encourage our kids to carve out time—after school, on weekends and when they’re off from school—to be more physically active. In our home, we recently signed an agreement to put our phones (itouch in the case of our fifth grader) on the kitchen counter between 6 and 8:30 pm each night on nights that we are home. This allows for us to connect and minimize distraction while doing homework or working on projects. So far, so good.

You’ll find some great ideas from We Can! to limit your family’s screen time here. You can also fill out this We Can! Screen Time Chart to see how different family members compare in terms of screen time. The results may surprise you!

How do you monitor/limit screen time in your home?

Image of kids using mobile devices via Shutterstock.

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