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Screen Time Recommendations For Parents: How Much Is Too Much For Kids?

The amount of screen time children spend in front of digital devices is worrying. Children don’t seem to tire of watching YouTube on mom’s smartphone, plying apps on their tablet, or playing video games on the family TV.

This one’s squarely in your hands and will take some work, but managing screen time is important and becoming more so at lightning speed.

As parents know, kids don’t see screen time as a problem, but you can help them recognize it by working to instill successful screen time management techniques and philosophies in them from the start. 

So, here we are. Let’s all agree that monitoring and managing your kids’ screen time becomes an integral parental responsibility. What does managing screen time even mean? How does a parent control screen time when it’s her child’s lifeline to remote education and even socialization due to the global Coronavirus shutdown?

And, how are parents and kids supposed to decrease screen time when they’re already stressed by global circumstances? It’s important to stay cool, calm and collected during the COVID-19 outbreak.

While Coronavirus has made the use of digital devices even more a part of our daily lives, this was happening already. Now, the transition is going to continue to accelerate, which means it’s a good time for parents to both embrace and confront this new reality in which we find ourselves.

And, that reality isn’t all bad. Families are starting to be creative and spending more fun time together. Couples are working on deepening their relationship. Kids and adults are hanging out with their neighbors for social time like having a glass of wine together talking over their fence.

There are positive messages in windows and written on the sidewalk. People are cooking more. Kids are learning to cook. People are “camping” indoors and in backyards.  People are reading more and catching up on movies. In short, we are adapting.

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    Kids, Parents & Screen Time: The New Normal

    How much screen time for kids? Let’s face it. The conversation around family screen time has changed. Now more than ever, kids AND parents are finding time spent on digital devices a necessary part of their lives for work, school and play.

    Whatever the age of your child, it’s complicated and parents everywhere are equally busy deciding between what’s a perfect scenario for their kids and themselves. Sometimes it’s nice when your kids are engrossed by YouTube, giving parents a chance to do their own thing.

    But, if you desire a well-balanced family, it’s going to take a little more work, time and effort. YouTube can’t do it all for you, and we’re sure you don’t want tech to babysit your kids, from toddlers to teens.

    Together, we’ll get to specifics further down in this helpful family screen time guide. Spending time with family is really what Dr. Bob’s book, The Well-Balanced Family: Reduce Screen Time and Increase Family Fun, Fitness and Connectedness, is all about: learning to create and enjoy quality experiences with loved ones, identifying and participating in rewarding (and fun!) family activities and communication enjoy spending family time with each other; and finding positive ways to counter boredom.

    What’s that going to look like, The New Normal? With hard work and dedication, it could end up being better than The Old Normal, and The Well-Balanced Family could be looked at as a survival manual for the Coronavirus crisis and life in general. Learn coping skills, organizational practices, design and kick off a fitness routine, and/or make the most of family meal times.

    It takes focus to prepare children for a better life in the near and far future, so maybe consider making family meetings part of daily life, rather than an occasional tool to deal with random flare-ups, or even super-weighty issues.

    Why Screen Time Can Be Harmful

    World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines recommend no screen time for kids up to two years old, and no more than one hour for children between the ages of two and four years.

    These are similar to recommendations published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2016 for that age group. For older children, the AAP guidelines recommend the use of their Family Media Plan, which calls for limiting screen time while encouraging an increase in healthy behaviors to replace it.

    Negative Effects: Smartphones, TV's, Tablets & Gadgets

    • Screen Time Addiction
    • Lack of Real-World Social Skills
    • Lack of Physical Activity
    • Aggressive Behavior
    • Poor Eating Habits/Nutrition
    • Less In-Person Communication
    • Limited Vocabulary
    • Homework Problems
    • Not Doing Chores
    • Increased Sibling Rivalry
    • May Complicate Friendships
    • Negative Impact on Vision (Blue Light) 

    Too Much For Kids: There Will Be Consequences

    Digital screens have become an inseparable part of life. You cannot wish them away or keep kids away from them, but you can minimize their impact on your children. The first step is to understand the challenges facing parents when it comes to managing screen time for kids.

    Kids are more vulnerable than adults when it comes to spending too much time with gadgets, and this can affect many aspects of family life. It can be difficult to limit children’s screen time on gadgets and digital devices, but there are steps parents can take to minimize adverse effects.

    According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average child spends about eight hours a day watching digital screens. Gadget and screen time use among kids increases with age, so setting limits and establishing best screen time practices early is important.

    It is always good to review the amount of screen time they are spending with gadgets, smart TV’s, and digital devices like smartphones. These days, it’s more difficult than ever to limit screen time with many kids receiving online education at home while schools are shut down during Coronavirus. Pro Tip: Get some ideas for non-screen time in A Parent’s Guide to Screen-Free Activities For Kids.

    Don't Let It Replace Physical Activity

    Lack of physical activity prompted the American Heart Association to issue a scientific statement urging parents to reduce kids’ screen time, saying it will increase the odds they will become overweight or obese (Circulation, 2018). Similarly, the University of Montreal found that increased BMI in children was associated with excessive access to TV (Pediatric Research, 2018).

    Several new articles written around the world warn that preschoolers are not getting enough outdoor play. These articles include one published by the University of Western Australia and another written by faculty members at the University of Hong Kong as well as the University of Auckland. The lack of outdoor play was associated with health issues due to lack of physical activity as well as a lack of connection with nature, which can result in better moods and behavior, less stress, and stronger social skills.

    The authors of the above studies point out that some living situations do not provide easy access to outdoor play areas such as a backyard. One suggestion is for parents to take children to a park or public playground frequently and to encourage participation in after-school sports programs. Want to know more? Check out The Benefits of Outdoor Play For Preschoolers, including benefits and specific activities.

    Screen Time Impact of Gadgets & Digital Devices on Kids' Vision

    Our children’s obsession with gadgets and screen time is a matter of concern, but the immediate worry is about its adverse impact on their vision.

    Kids use gadgets for playing games, chatting, browsing or watching movies. The activity is usually so involving that they don’t take their attention off the screen. They also don’t pay attention to things like posture, screen distance, and brightness, which can adversely affect their vision and health.

    Here are some screen time recommendations to consider that will help parents manage screen time for kids:

    • Limit Screen Time: Total amount of screen time per child daily has changed during Coronavirus. Just make sure that time is being put to positive, educational purposes.
    • Encourage Children to Play Outdoors: Screen time on digital devices encourages sedentary habits which can be harmful to the body and mind. Spend time outdoors!
    • Screen Time & Gadgets Not Child Care: Keeping children busy with gadgets or TV may give parents downtime, but there are other ways to do that: creative toys, coloring books, etc.
    • Ensure Adequate Sleep: Kids need around 10 hours of sleep daily, depending on their age and development.
    • Take Screen Time Breaks: Short breaks from looking at gadgets and digital screens every 20 minutes or so reduces eye strain.
    • Maintain Distance from Screen: Don’t get too close to the screen! Your kids’ eyes should be at least 20 inches away from the screen.
    • Lighting Conditions Matter: Kids may not pay attention to lighting conditions when they are engrossed in an activity. Discourage the use of gadgets in a dark room or in bright sunlight.

    Why Screen Time Can Be Positive

    Okay, the screen time equation for parents has changed and it’s time to look at it in a different way. Screen time can be valuable. There is a lot of good content and it can be entertaining, educational and right now a terrific means of interacting and connecting outside the home.

    It can be a source of recreation like Wii Fit, it can be a source of pseudo vacation, there are excellent portals to allow you to visit museums, zoos, far-off lands, go on a vicarious train trip or cruise.

    This could be a time to learn new skills that could take the place of screen time in the future, like music, art, yoga, dance, coding, etc. There are great science programs, TV shows, podcasts, YouTube videos that introduce kids to books, and free online book lending libraries. All of these are useful.

    Positive Effects: Smartphones, TV's, Tablets & Gadgets

    • Educational Materials
    • Interactive Online Teaching
    • Physical Activity & Recreation
    • Virtual Vacations
    • Learn New Skills
    • Social Interaction with Family & Friends

    For now, we look at screen time in a different way. It can be and often is a portal to valuable information and productivity. It can be entertaining, educational and right now screen time is a terrific means of interacting and connecting outside the home.

    We’ve read recently that the schools are saying, “school is out.” Distance learning has been too difficult for kids, teachers and parents on such short notice, but educators are resourceful and will continue to adapt to “The New Normal” when it comes to learning overall and learning on digital devices overall.

    Impact on School, Learning & Academics

    An article published in the September 23rd issue of the JAMA Pediatrics shared the findings culled from an analysis of the data from 58 studies related to screen time and various measures of academic achievement. Researchers found that viewing television and playing video games appeared to have a negative effect on academic achievement.

    They did not find a statistically significant correlation between the total time spent on various digital media and academics. However, it should be noted that some individual studies do find a connection between total screen time and academics. Certainly, excessive use of screen time produces several problems, including academics, sleep, socialization as well as physical and mental health.

    The findings of the study lend support to the need to continue to look at not only how much time children spend on the use of digital devices but what positive and negative effects various devices may have on academic achievement.

    During the Coronavirus outbreak, parents still want kids learning, even with our nation’s schools shuttered for the year. Teaching and educating your kids during Coronavirus is going to take some work.

    It’s a paradigm shift throughout all levels of our society and educational system and today’s parents are going to bear the brunt of this emergency transition to remote learning. The good news: We’re here to help!

    Setting Limits

    This study says that perhaps television and video games should have shorter time limits than other screen time activities.

    However, the bottom line of the study was that parents and educational professionals should consider supervision and offer guidance to improve the academic performance of children and adolescents. Also, the academic performance of adolescents appeared to be more adversely affected than children.

    Helpful Resource: The American Academy of Pediatrics even developed the Family Media Plan, a useful tool for managing family screen time. This resource helps families schedule and create goals around the amount of time that each member of the family spends watching TV, using a computer, tablet, smartphone, or playing video games.

    According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average child spends about eight hours a day watching digital screens. Gadget and screen time use among kids increases with age, so setting limits and establishing best screen time practices early is important.

    Generally, we’re talking about no screen time for kids under two, one hour a day for kids 2-12 years old, and two hours a day for teens and adults. The average time currently spent on screens? 7-10 hours daily.

    Finally, studies show that the use of screen time has been linked to learning difficulties. Researchers at the University of Alberta and the University of Iowa have found that the use of digital devices beyond the time recommended by age group, particularly during the preschool years, can result in poor concentration and attention span.

    Babies should have zero screen time up to 18 months EXCEPT for video conferencing with family and friends, a positive use of a digital device.

    School-aged kids from 6-10 years of age should max out at 1.5 hours of screen time per day. Remember, though, screen time is a general term and what’s most important is the quality of content, i.e. cultural and educational materials over watching Netflix or playing video games.

    Teenagers should spend around two hours per day on screen tim, but the data shows they’re spending more than seven hours per day.

    While the AAP guidelines per the amount of time kids spend on their digital screens recommend the following:

    • Toddlers (18-24 months): Little to no screen time recommended.
    • Preschoolers (3 to 5): Up to 1 hour per day.
    • Elementary School Aged (6-10): 1-1.5 hours per day.
    • Middle School Aged (11-13): Up to 2 hours per day.

    Digital Devices: When is Enough, Enough?

    Coping with this same issue for teenagers? Same as the rest of us, studies say teens are happier with less screen time, though any parent knows trying to take a smartphone away from a teenager isn’t a simple task.

    Of course, those are slightly dated guidelines here in 2020, at which point we’re dealing with a whole new screen time paradigm due to Coronavirus a.k.a. COVID-19. In addition to time spent, also consider putting some of these ideas in place to manage your family’s screen time.

    • NO digital devices of any kind allowed in bedrooms overnight. Kids will keep their smartphones and other digital devices in or near their bed and play games or watch YouTube in the middle of the night. Teens not only will engage in these activities but can be up all-night texting or chatting.
    • Create a screen-free area around the dining room table; not just during family meals, but for any time someone is eating there. Parents can teach their kids mindful eating. This helps reduce food consumption and improves digestion. Family mealtime should become an opportunity for positive interaction and open communication between all family members.
    • If possible, an office/study room should be available if possible with access to a computer, books, and other materials for work or study. A bulletin board placed on a wall could serve as a place to post homework schedules and reading logs. It’s best if kids have a designated area for work as it improves concentration and task completion.
    • Buy a docking station large enough to accommodate all of the family’s portable devices (phones and tablets) and place it in a central location. Devices can be plugged in when entering the home and should remain there except for agreed-upon times for their use.
    • Ideally, parents should wait to retrieve texts or phone calls until times when they’re not engaged in family time. Better yet, if possible, save that activity for after the kids are in bed.
    • Each member of the family should have a daily activity schedule that includes screen time. You can discuss this at a family meeting. At the meeting times, limits for each member of the family can be set and agreed upon. Times may vary based on the age of the child. This process may not be easy, but it’s a good topic for problem-solving.

    You may want to spend time with each child helping them to come up with their own priorities of what shows to watch and other activities to fit within their time limit.

    Screens should be turned off when engaging in socialization or other activities such as completing homework (unless the homework is online). Distraction during social exchanges or multitasking is always counterproductive.

    Screen Time Alternatives for Families:

    • Physical Activity
    • Reading (with you or on their own)
    • Playing with Toys (think Lego, fantasy play, hobbies)
    • Outdoor Activities
    • Digital Device-Free Family Meals
    • Learn Technology (create videos or animation)
    • Learn Skills (play an instrument, learn to code, yoga)

    Parents need to be role models. Agree to limits on your own use during family meetings and stick with them. You can use Screen Time to monitor your use and set limits. In addition to the above, learning how to set parental controls on various devices is especially important. By using these tools, you’ll be able to monitor your child’s usage, set time limits, and restrict their use to age-appropriate content.

    The most important thing with all these suggestions? Engagement. When you are reading with your children, take the time to talk about the story. Also, with teens, you may want to occasionally each read the same book and discuss your thoughts.

    Time To Read...A Real Book

    Why bring up reading a real book and not streaming, well, everything? Other research, including two recent articles published in the Journal of Reading Research and Pediatrics, found that reading traditional books (printed on paper) resulted in better comprehension than books read on a digital device.

    All the experts recognize that the use of digital devices by children and adults in moderation is not harmful and have a place in our lives. However, they all agree that reducing the amount of screen time and only a few hours outside of work for adults leads to improved physical and mental health as well as stronger social connections, including enhanced intellectual and creative development.

    A message to both parents and kids: Make your family screen time productive both educationally and as far as entertainment, then shut down the smartphone, turn off the TV, put away the iPad, and just be a family.