Less Screen Time Means a Better Mind and Body for Kids

Young boy sitting alone watching TV
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If you've ever wondered whether it's worth fighting with your child over the amount of time they spend in front of the TV, computer, or another screen, the answer, according to recent studies, is a resounding "yes." Reducing time with devices makes it possible for families to spend more time together interacting and talking to each other face-to-face.

Less screen time can give also kids more time to go outside and get some exercise or read a book. Recently, studies have shown that cutting down screen time can also have a positive effect on kids' physical, social, and behavioral well-being, and it can even improve their academic performance.

How Screen Time Is Harmful

Research has shown that kids spend more time using electronic media devices than they do on any other activity—an average of 7 hours a day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Spending too much time on screens has been linked to not getting enough sleep, poor grades, and a greater risk of obesity.

The AAP and other child health advocates have urged parents to limit screen time to no more than 1 hour a day for kids ages 2 to 5. The AAP recommends that parents avoid any screen time for babies and children under 18 months.

Another problem with kids and too much screen time: As children get older and spend more time using screens, there is a measurable drop-off in the amount of educational activities they engage in, according to a 2014 report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit research group established by Sesame Workshop.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center report is based on a national survey of 1,577 parents of children ages 2 to 10. Researchers asked parents about their child's use of media, including TV, DVDs, video games, books, e-readers, smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices.

Researchers found that kids' exposure to educational media (educational programs such as Sesame Street or an online math game, for example) happens much less frequently as children get older, even as kids begin to increase their screen time. In fact, the proportion of screen time spent on educational materials dropped from 78% for younger kids to 27% for older children.

Children ages 2 to 4 were reported to be spending an average of 1 hour and 37 minutes a day on screen time, with as much as 1 hour and 16 minutes being spent on educational materials. In contrast, kids ages 8 to 10 spent 2 hours and 36 minutes a day on screens, and only 42 minutes were spent on educational media.

Benefits of Reducing Screen Time

One 2014 study linked parental monitoring of kids' media use to improved sleep, decreased body mass index, and better grades. The study, which was led by Douglas Gentile, Ph.D., a leading expert on the effects of media on children and adults, looked at 1,323 children in third, fourth, and fifth grades in Iowa and Minnesota over the period of one school year, or seven months.

Researchers found that when parents monitored their kids' media use—restricting the amount of time kids were allowed to use computers, TV, phones, etc.; restricting content; or actively discussing themes and other aspects of the content they were watching—there were social, academic, and physical changes.

Benefits of Cutting Back on Screen Time

Kids slept more, had better grades, and had lower body mass index, or BMI (a measure of body fat based on weight and height), and had less aggression.

Parents may not notice the effect of restricting and monitoring screen time right away, just as they may not notice a child getting taller day to day. However, a so-called "ripple effect" can occur. Monitoring screen time and content don't immediately lead to changes, but over time, there is a wide range of health and wellness benefits.

According to the study, more parental monitoring led to less total screen time for kids and reduced exposure to media violence, which in turn led to benefits such as improved sleep, lower BMI, better school performance, improved social behavior, and reduced aggression.

Strategies

Below are strategies you can use to monitor and cut back on your child's screen time:

Set Time Limits—and Stick to Them

Whether it's one hour of TV after homework is done or no more than 30 minutes total of texting with friends, establish clear rules and limits for screen time. And as tempting as it may be to give in when kids beg, whine, and bargain for more time to chat with friends, watch a favorite show, or play one more video game, be as firm and consistent as possible.

No Screens in Your Child's Room

Don't allow your child to have a TV or any other tech screen device in their room. Not only has having a TV in a bedroom been linked to lower test scores, problems sleeping, and obesity in kids, but it's also a temptation. And remember that screens aren't just TVs anymore—don't allow your child to have iPads, smartphones, or any other devices in their room.

Know What Your Child Is Viewing

Research shows that viewing content with a child and actively discussing themes, thinking about what's viewed critically, and talking about the effects and meaning of the viewed content is one of the best types of monitoring parents can do. Get into the habit of knowing what your child is seeing and hearing when they are online, playing video games, or watching TV.

Be sure to limit the amount of violent content your child is exposed to. According to Dr. Gentile, who is a leading expert on the effects of violent media content, research has shown that violent content can change kids' behavior.

Stick to Your Guns

Remind yourself that it's worth the arguments. Your child may be one unhappy camper when their screen time is limited and monitored, but remember that there will be many benefits for them in the long run.

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  3. Joan Ganz Cooney Center. Learning at Home: Families’ Educational Media Use in America. Published January 2014.

  4. Gentile DA, Reimer RA, Nathanson AI, Walsh DA, Eisenmann JC. Protective effects of parental monitoring of children's media use: A prospective study. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(5):479-484. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.146

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