How to set healthy screen time limits

Children's Health

by Kathryn Greiner, MD

Aug 24, 2018

At your child’s next checkup, the doctor may ask you this question: how much screen time is your child getting?

You may wonder why we care — how is screen time a health issue? Let’s elaborate.

Screen time refers to the amount of time spent in front of an electronic screen. Screens are everywhere. Phones, tablets, computers and TVs abound. Think about how many electronics you have in your own house. Think about how frequently your kids play on these. Anyone else have a toddler who has tried to touch the TV like it’s a tablet? You get my drift — our kids are surrounded by electronic screens.

You may wonder why your child’s physician brings this up with you. It’s because we care about your child’s developing brain, and his or her developmental behavior.

In the past few years, studies have linked increased screen time to behavioral problems, including anger outbursts, lack of self-control, ADHD, insomnia (trouble falling and staying asleep) and difficulty developing social skills. Screen time has also been linked to childhood and adult obesity.

So, what can you do as a parent? Does this mean you should be constantly plotting another amazing Pinterest educational craft with your child and never watch a movie again? No. But it does mean that you should be mindful and intentional with electronics.

Make a screen time plan

Don’t let your electronic screens be your default babysitter. Traditional guidelines suggest that parents limit screen time by age group. For example, toddlers get no time, school age kids are limited to one hour per day, and older kids are limited to two hours per day.

One tool I really like to use is the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) interactive family media plan. It allows you to see how much time per day is reasonable for your kids to spend on screens. Again, if nothing else, it helps you be more mindful and intentional.

Related: How to help your child establish healthy habits

Be mindful of quality

While we still take these time limits into account, it is even more important to consider the quality of the content. For example, is your child watching “Odd Squad” (a PBS kids’ show that teaches math and problem-solving skills) or “SpongeBob”?

A recent study compared kids who watched nine minutes of “SpongeBob” with kids who watched nine minutes of an educational cartoon or colored instead. The children who watched the fast-paced “SpongeBob” cartoon showed significantly more difficulty completing tasks and remembering things. After just nine minutes.

This example anecdotally illustrates the importance of purposeful, educational content within your child’s limited screen time.

Get out of the house

What else can you do? Get your kids active. Screen time and constantly sitting are major causes for establishing lifelong habits that can lead to obesity in childhood and adulthood.

Play a sport as a family. Take your kids to the library. Go to church as a family. Eat dinner at the table together. Let your kids learn to play an instrument. Instead of spending money on a new video game, take your kids on a trip and make family memories, which is shown to increase long-term happiness in both you and your kids.

Teach your children

Don’t forget to teach your kids about appropriate screen use. Instead of telling them when their time is up, help them set their own timer to monitor time spent looking at screens.

Related: Why playtime is the most important part of your child’s day

But screens are unavoidable, so teach your children to be safe when they are online. Teach them about staying out of chat rooms or other sites where predators can seek them out. Teach them about in-app purchases and manipulation in advertising. Teach them that not everything you read on the Internet is true!

If I leave you with nothing else, I hope I have at least helped you to just think about things. When we don’t have a plan, our TVs, phones and computers can be the default time-filler. So be intentional with yourself and your kids.

Now, turn off this screen and go play some backyard kickball.

About the Author

Kathryn Greiner, MD, is a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – College Station University Drive. She attended medical school and completed her residency at Texas A&M Science Center College of Medicine. Dr. Greiner enjoys teaching her patients how to partner with her for a healthier life. She is married with three children. Book an appointment with Dr. Greiner today.

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