Health Matters: Screen Time
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), today's children spend an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones, video games, and other electronic devices. Although we don’t yet have results from longitudinal studies (technology simply hasn’t been around long enough), short-term studies suggest that prolonged screen time fundamentally changes how our children think and relate to the world around them.
The Mayo Clinic noted that too much or poor-quality screen time has been linked to obesity, irregular sleep schedules and shorter duration of sleep, behavioral problems, loss of social skills, violence, and less time for play.
The effect of too much screen time is especially worrisome for infants and toddlers. During the first five years of life, the brain is developing more rapidly than at any other time, establishing critical functions that can have enduring impacts. To make the best use of this early childhood time, children younger than two years old need to interact with people and explore their surroundings, engaging their senses by manually examining things. This hands-on learning helps develop their cognitive (thinking), language, motor, and social-emotional skills.
Early studies indicate that digital skills do not translate to the real world. For example, young children who learn to sort shapes on a screen cannot sort similarly shaped blocks in a classroom. The AAP says, “Because of their immature symbolic, memory, and attentional skills, infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they do from interactions with caregivers, and they have difficulty transferring that knowledge to their three-dimensional experience.”
Based on current scientific data, the AAP recommends zero screen time for children younger than two years old, and limiting time to no more than one hour per day (preferably with an adult) for children ages 2-5 years. This allows children enough time for healthy physical, social and emotional development and creates media-viewing habits that will set them up for success later in life.
Children and Adolescents
As children and adolescents grow and develop, their relationship with the digital world changes. Gaming, social media, and constant texting affect how children think and interact. Given that the human brain is not fully developed until a person’s mid-20s, these are still formative years.
According to recent studies, more than three-quarters of teenagers use at least one social media site and approximately 25 percent describe themselves as “constantly connected” to the internet. And, about 91 percent of boys reporting having access to a game console and 84 percent of them report playing video games online or on a cell phone.
Yet with all this connectivity, young people are actually less connected to one another. A month-long experiment at the University of Pennsylvania showed that college students who limited themselves to just 30 minutes a day on social media sites reported significant decreases in loneliness and depression.
Being constantly plugged in not only makes it harder for young people to create healthy interpersonal relationships, it can also introduce them to inappropriate or upsetting information they do not have the maturity or life experience to understand or deal with. You might be surprised to know that 12 percent of youth aged 10 to 19 years have sent a sexual photo to someone else.
Not all screen time is created equal and it’s not all bad. The key is to limit screen time while children are young, and then stay engaged with children as they grow. Here are some excellent recommendations from kidshealth.org.
- To determine which movies and games are appropriate at any given age, check out commonsensemedia.org.
- Preview games and even play them with your teen to see what they're like.
- Make sure teens have a variety of free-time activities.
- Turn off all screens during family meals and at bedtime, and keep devices with screens out of your teen's bedroom after bedtime.
- Spend screen time together to make sure that what your teen sees is appropriate.
- Use screening tools on the TV, computers, and tablets to block your teen's access to inappropriate material.
- Teach your teen about Internet safety and social media smarts, and make sure he or she knows the dangers of sharing private information online or sexting.
- Keep the computer in a common area where you can watch what's going on.
Cindi Mockel is a family nurse practitioner at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.