Parents Ask? How much screen time should we allow our child?

Because she’s very bright, we want her to be well prepared and know what’s going on in the world.

Probably a lot less time than you think. A little goes a long way, and excessive screen time endangers children in multiple ways. Here are some practical suggestions to help parents protect their children.

goldstar Learn about the dangers of excessive screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no more than two hours/day for children over the age of two. However, according to the AAP, studies show that children three to 10 years of age average eight hours/day and older children and teens spend 11 hours/day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones, video games and other electronic devices, far more than the two hour maximum. In addition to the well-known risk of sleep deprivation and weight gain due to inactivity, there are other even more serious threats to a child’s well-being.

Studies show that children who exceed the AAP two hour limit are more than twice as likely to have more attention problems than children who don’t. Teachers also report that children have increasing problems paying attention and staying on task. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is 10 times more common today than it was 20 years ago. Although ADHD has a genetic base, scientists believe this frightening increase is primarily due to behavioral changes driven by technology, especially too much screen time and faster-paced shows, video games and media content.

The AAP also recommends that “all television and entertainment media should be avoided for children under age two. A child’s brain develops rapidly during those first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” A television should not serve as a baby sitter, nor a tablet as a child’s toy – however fascinating he may find it. And don’t confuse a child’s adeptness with electronic devices like tablets with giftedness. Although her adeptness may be possible because a child is bright, the very activity is destroying the high intelligence that could flourish later in many venues. Trust the experts.

How long does screen time risk persist? Environmental influences, scientists say, are a large factor in brain development – and the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully formed until age 25. The AAP insists that teens need age-appropriate limits as much as toddlers do, perhaps even more so because their risk-exposure opportunities are greater.

goldstar Document your child’s use of screen technologies. The AAP has a Media History Form readily available online for parents to assess their child’s screen time. Answering these questions will help you get an overview of the various media devices you are currently allowing your child to use. However, the AAP form needs to be supplemented to include similar questions about smart phone and tablet usage which are much more common now than when the screening form was developed. After completing your survey, keep a log of your child’s actual screen time for several weeks. This will give you an accurate – and possibly alarming – picture of the amount of screen time she is exposed to.

goldstar Determine your priorities. What screens does your child spend excessive time in front of? How dangerous are they? It makes a difference what sort of computer games a child plays. Shooting games, for example, are much more dangerous than problem-solving games. What do you consider acceptable or even valuable? Using the information your log reveals, decide which screens should be eliminated completely and which others can be allowed in limited fashion.

goldstar Set clear, firm limits. Start with the two hours/day limit that the AAP recommends for children. That’s the outside limit. Then consider how screen time can be spent. Also, it’s not just about screen time on a device, you also need to make it clear what types of usage are acceptable, what are not. Can your child use a tablet or computer for researching school assignments if he does not exceed the two hour limit? That’s different than using it for video streaming or social media. Spell out the time your child is allowed for each. Be specific about the usage – or non-usage – for various screens. Your decisions will depend on multiple factors, including your child’s age, maturity and honesty about what he does. Explain your rules and reasons for them.

goldstar Create screen-free zones and times. Keep screens out of the bedrooms, your own as well as your children’s. This is basic. Yet 71% of children and teens have a TV in their bedrooms. Everyone needs to sleep without the temptation of watching TV or checking their phones, tablets or computers. They should be recharging in the office, the kitchen or somewhere else in the house far away from sleepers who might be tempted to do one more game, text, email or search. Of course, no screens, including television, at meals. Those are also screen-free times.

goldstar Promote other activities. As the AAP says, “It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies and using their imaginations in free play.” Perhaps more than ever, it’s important for parents to make sure that their child has a chance to be well-rounded.

goldstar Watch with your child. View TV, movies and videos with your child. Ask questions about what you are viewing. Use it as an opportunity to discuss family values or other issues. Make it a bonding as well as an educational experience.

goldstar Set consequences. The two-to-one rule is a good starting point: your child loses the right to use a technology for two days for every day she exceeds the limits you set. Also, the total screen time should be cut by twice the amount of time involved in the infraction for two days. If problems persist that these simple consequences do not suffice, increase them. Keep in mind that screen time is a privilege, not a right or a necessity.

goldstar Strive to have a predictable daily schedule. It may vary from day to day, depending on soccer practice, dance class or your work schedule. But if your child knows in advance that on Wednesdays, 4-5:30 is free time to recreate, family dinner is at 6 followed by cleanup, 6:30-8:30 is homework time and 9 is bedtime, life will be much calmer and the chances of extra screen time minimized. And yes, family dinner is important. It should be a relaxed meal, a time to catch up, talk about the day, what’s upcoming and to enjoy one another. Make it a high point of the day, not a time to ingest food individually or in front of a television.

goldstar Enforce limits. Nothing changes behaviors more effectively than following through on predicted consequences. Make it clear that you will check regularly (daily if you must) to be sure that he does not violate the screen time rules, including both total time spent and the type of screen time. Follow through promptly and matter-of-factly. No negotiating. No “last warning.” Any violation triggers an automatic, pre-determined consequence.

goldstar Model healthy behavior. Make sure that your own screen time is not excesseive. If you are texting or on the phone at meals or in the car, how can you expect your child to take you seriously when you tell her that it’s not acceptable for her to do so? Instead, be proactive about using these occasions to converse, learn more about your child’s day and help her develop her social skills. Do you immediatly turn to your tablet or smart phone to research any question? What message does your behavior send about your priorities?

goldstar Bottom line: Clarifying the appropriate use of screen time for your child, combined with your willingness to set limits and enforce consequences, will go a long way in assuring that your child learns to use technology to enhance her growth, not stunt it. And a final caveat: this does not address the inherent dangers of social media. That’s for another column, coming soon.

Dennis O’Brien is a licensed clinical social worker, experienced educator and therapist. In addition to writing educational materials used by the Washington University School of Medicine Dept. of Psychiatry and weekly columns on parenting for the Suburban Journals, he writes monthly columns for St. Louis Moms and Dads, and regular columns for CHARACTERplus, Family Connection (Mo. Dept of Mental Health) and Gifted Association of Missouri. O’Brien’s April 6 column, “Prevent teen suicide by addressing it,” won the 2010 Missouri Institute of Mental Health award for outstanding reporting on suicide.

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