Two little girls laying down and watching something on a laptop

Young Children Pay a High Price for Screen Time

Welcome to 2021…kind of picking right up where 2020 left off!  

But it’s not too late for some resolutions to make the most of 2021. Let’s start with screen time. Especially the screen time of your kids.

Many parents are occasionally thankful for the television—after all, it can serve as a low-cost, short-term babysitter while they cook or do housework. At the same time, however, many parents are concerned about the amount of television that their children watch—and for good reason. Statistics tell us that in America, children under six watch an average of two hours of TV a day, and children eight to 18 spend an average of four hours in front of a TV and often an additional two hours a day on computers, tablets, phones, or playing video games. 

So what does all of this screen time mean for America’s children? Recent research published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that it is results in poorer well-being and sleep and that it contributes to childhood obesity. 

In the first study, part of a larger research project called IDEFICS (Identification and Prevention of Dietary- and Lifestyle-Induced Health Effects in Children and Infants), researchers examined 3,604 children aged two to six to determine if there was a relationship between their electronic media use and their sense of well-being. They assessed the children based on six standardized indicators of well-being (including emotional problems, peer problems, self-esteem, family functioning, and social interactions) and compared the results to the number of hours they spent in front of a TV, computer, or video game screen. They found that increased media use predicted much poorer senses of well-being. TV was found to be more harmful than computer use, but overall they found that there was a 1.2- to 2.0-fold increase in emotional problems and poorer family functioning for each additional hour of media use. 

A second JAMA Pediatrics study involving 1,713 Spanish children found that children who watched more than 1.5 hours of television per day had shorter sleep duration and began to suffer from sleep deprivation. Their sleep duration shortened with every extra hour of television watched over the 1.5-hour baseline. And in a third study, researchers found that increased media exposure resulted in sharply increasing BMI (Body Mass Index) scores, and thus a tendency toward childhood obesity. 

And recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that “Early exposure to excessive screen time at 24 months was predictive of lower developmental outcomes at 36 months.  And similarly, increased screen time exposure at 36 months also was related to decreased developmental outcomes at 60 months.  While that screen is a great babysitter every now and then, it can become addictive and have detrimental long term results.

So how much screen time is too much? Every day more research comes out indicating that exposure to electronic media can have adverse effects on children—effects that can persist into adulthood. 

As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under the age of two not watch any TV, as the first two years of life are a critical time for brain development. Television and other electronic media can prevent exploring, playing, and interacting with parents and others, all of which are critical for social development. In addition, the AAP suggests that children older than two watch no more than one to two hours of electronic media per day.  Personally, I would suggest even less than two hours per day, as that seems like a lot.

I see it in my office every week, whether it is a pediatric patient, or a child along with a parent.  More and more, kids are looking at a screen and less and less are the interacting with me or other adults. It also seems to me that when the kids have access to a screen while at my office they are either 1) not engageable in conversation, or 2) almost in a state of hyperactive activity that is difficult to communicate with.  And, as you're surely aware, there is less and less outdoor activity and sports and 'free play' among our youth currently.  

A friend of mine even went so far as to buy a “Phone Jail”. Yes, that’s a thing, and they can be purchased online!  It’s a brilliant idea. Thankfully, my kids are 10, 9, and 5 years old, and they don’t have their own phones, so I haven’t purchased one. Yet.

Let’s resolve in 2021 to get away from screens more. Not just for ourselves, but for our kids.  

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