We live in a digital world, surrounded by screens of all shapes and sizes. From theater-style TVs and tablets to the cellphones that everyone has at their fingertips, we are tethered to our devices.
A recent Policy Statement on Children, Adolescents and the Media by the American Academy of Pediatrics reported some eye-opening figures. The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of media, and older children and teens spend more than 11 hours per day. If a TV is present in a child’s bedroom (a reported 71 percent of kids have televisions in their rooms) these hours increase even more. When you add it up, children spend more time with media than they do in school and may be interacting with media more than they sleep.
TV remains the most predominant medium used by kids at more than four hours per day, but nearly one-third of TV programming is viewed on alternate devices. About 84 percent of children have internet access and one-third have access in their bedrooms. Computer time accounts for up to 1 1/2 hours per day, half of which is spent on social networks, playing games or watching videos.
About 75 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have cellphones, yet talk less on their phones than any other group except seniors. Texting is their main method of communicating, with half of teenagers sending 50 texts per day and one-third averaging more than 100. They are also avid multi-taskers, albeit inefficient ones. How many teens are doing homework on their iPads while FaceTiming with fellow students, checking iMessages or Snapchats and answering texts on their phones?
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Despite this overwhelming technology exposure, parents find it difficult to set limits on the time their children spend watching TV or using devices. In fact, many parents are participating in the excess. A necessary first step is to set limits on screen time and lead by example, separating TV and media from moments that are distinct family times, such as mealtimes. Parents should:
▪ Enforce mealtime and bedtime device curfews. No screen time during meals and removal at a strict time well before bed.
▪ Establish reasonable but firm rules about cell phones, texting, gaming, internet and social media use.
▪ Limit the total entertainment screen time to one to two hours per day, or less for kids with busy after-school schedules and heavy homework loads.
It is reasonable to completely ban entertainment screen time on school nights. Keep televisions and internet-connected devices out of your children’s bedrooms; have your kids use the internet in designated open areas that more easily allow you to monitor what they are accessing, including web and social media sites. Also ask your teens to demonstrate what they are doing online to help you understand both content and context.
Watch TV, movies and videos with your children and teenagers, and use these moments as segues for discussing important family values. But parents should try to emphasize other activities for their children. Encourage unstructured play, outdoor play, sports participation, music and arts, service projects, religious youth groups, etc.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended no long periods of TV for children under 2 years old, and many pediatricians discourage all screen media exposure for these young children. If you do allow your toddler to enjoy screen time, always watch media with him or her. Young children learn best via two-way communication, so talking with them remains critical for language development.
There is considerable evidence that a TV in the bedroom increases the risk for obesity, substance abuse and exposure to sexual content and graphic violence. Studies show that different types of screens in the bedroom also negatively affect sleep duration and quality of sleep. Inadequate sleep is linked with poor mental and physical health, including increased risk of obesity, depression and anxiety, which is why it’s imperative for parents to restrict night screen time and consider removing media devices from their kids’ rooms.
Kids will make mistakes using media, but these can be teachable moments. Take the opportunity to speak with your children with empathy and love. It is imperative that we regain control of our families’ priorities. The new age of technology has brought tremendous advantages to education and communication, but at a price. Using what we have learned, parents can formulate a practical plan that allows their families to thrive in this exciting information age while maintaining good values and excellent health.
Cecilia Valdes Morales, M.D., is a pediatrician at UHealth – University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.