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Screen time for kids: how much is too much? 4 tips for the pixel playground

Screen time: how much is too much? In today’s digital age, navigating the balance between screen time and healthy development for our children has become an increasingly complex challenge. With screens pervading nearly every aspect of daily life, from education to entertainment, it’s easy to find ourselves grappling with concerns about its potential negative impacts. Yet, rather than demonizing technology, it may be more effective to shift our focus to practical strategies to mitigate these effects. 

Tryon Medical Partners family medicine specialist and parent of three, Dr. Margaret Ball provides a range of tips designed to help parents steer their children toward a healthier relationship with screens, ultimately promoting holistic growth and well-being in the digital era. 

Stick to the screen time recommendations by age

Dr. Ball emphasizes that putting limits on screen time is one of the best ways to reduce the negative impacts on children and adolescents. The American Academy of Pediatrics has some helpful guidelines on appropriate screen time by age that Dr. Ball encourages parents to follow:

  • For children between 18 and 24 months, screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver.
  • For children 2-5, limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on the weekend days.
  • For ages 6 and older, encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens.

“On school days and weekends, I insist that my twins need to read for an hour and do math workbook practice before they have any screen time. If this isn’t done before 6:30, they don’t get screen time,” Dr. Ball shares about her experience with encouraging healthy screen time habits for her second graders. “Having them work for the screen time and see it as a reward helps them to create a balance.”

Look out for the following signs of excessive screen time

Dr. Ball advises that parents watch for some specific symptoms of excessive screen time. Signs to look for include: 

  • Weight gain: Increased TV and video consumption correlates with a heightened risk of childhood obesity. Screen time could potentially lead to unhealthy eating habits influenced by advertisements, and can cause overeating while engaged with electronics.
  • Irregular sleep patterns: Extended screen exposure is associated with difficulties falling asleep and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule among children, which can result in fatigue and increased snacking during the day. 
  • Behavioral issues: Elementary students who spend more time on screens are prone to emotional, social, and attention-related problems. Video game exposure also correlates with an elevated likelihood of attention issues in children. There is a known link between screen time and mental health. 
  • Academic performance decline: Children with excessive screen exposure tend to underperform on academic tests compared to their counterparts. 
  • Desensitization to violence: Excessive exposure to violent media may desensitize children to violence, potentially normalizing aggressive behavior as a means of conflict resolution.
  • Reduced time for active play: Overall physical and cognitive development may be slower due to excessive screen usage limiting opportunities for active and imaginative play. 

Treat screen time as an opportunity to connect in healthy ways

At this point, screens are an unavoidable part of life. Dr. Ball recommends that parents do what they can to provide context and conversation around what children and teenagers will inevitably see online and on TV. Try to engage with the TV, movies, and video games that your children enjoy. When helpful, provide context as to what they’re seeing or open a dialogue to help them better understand and process it. 

“The most important part is the active parenting around screen time,” Dr. Ball notes. “Talk to your children about what they’re seeing, or watch it with them if they’re open to it. When kids want to bring you into their world, that’s great. It can be a helpful tool for connection.”

You can even use screens as a tool for good, Dr. Ball emphasizes. Screens can be very beneficial for supplementing school lessons, learning about a new and interesting topic or finding healthy ways to pass the time

“With my twins, they were reading at three because we sang the sight word song along with YouTube all the time,” Dr. Ball shares. “Or we’d go on YouTube and do yoga lessons for kids. There are advantages to screen time, too, but setting the limit is very important.” 

Role model healthy screen time engagement

Ultimately, it’s important to practice what you preach. If you’re telling your child something but doing an entirely different thing, it’s far less likely to be effective. Focus on the following habits to ensure you’re an effective screen time role model for your children:

  • Set device-free times and zones, such as dinner, the drive to school, and no televisions or electronics in the bedroom
  • Establish screen-time goals for yourself, by first tracking how much you use your phone and then setting limits
  • Keep distractions to a minimum, turning off notifications can help with this
  • Watch and play movies, shows, and games together, rather than separately 

“Even as an adult, make a concerted effort to check in on your own screen time,” Dr. Ball advises. “If you’re experiencing symptoms that might indicate anxiety or depression or you notice changes to your mood, look at where you are spending your time and what you are watching. Engage with a hobby, prioritize spending time with your family, go on walks, get moving as a family, make time for friends, and seek outside support if needed.”

If you want to learn more about the impacts of screen time and how to best curtail them, use MedChat to schedule an appointment with a Tryon family medicine specialist today.