Northwest Health Summer 2011

Slimming Down Kids' Media Diet

Electronic devices tempt kids, but limits are important for good health.

Go to: Northwest Health Index

Not too long ago, monitoring a child's screen time simply meant setting limits on time spent watching television or playing video games.

Nowadays parents must factor many additional devices into their child's daily media diet. Does playing on mom's iPhone during a trip to the grocery store count? What about Internet research with dad for homework? Or jumping around with a friend while playing a Kinect game on the Xbox?

"It gets to be a fine line," says Group Health Physicians pediatrician Rob Nohle, MD. But there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the time that kids spend in front of electronic screens.

Dr. Nohle cites a recent study in Great Britain that examined the association between screen time and physical activity levels and psychological distress in kids aged 4 to 12. The study found that higher amounts of TV and general screen time were associated with lower rates of physical activity — a big problem given surging childhood obesity rates. Higher screen times combined with lower physical activity rates were also linked to a greater chance a child would develop psychological distress, including emotional symptoms, misbehavior, and issues with peers.

A few simple guidelines. General guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) can help families determine appropriate amounts of screen time for their children, says Dr. Nohle.

For children under age 2, no screen time at all is the goal because it's a critical period for brain growth. Their priority is to play and interact with their families.

Children over the age of 2 — including into the teen years — should spend no more than two hours a day in front of a screen. "Television, video games, and computer use all count toward these two hours," Dr. Nohle says. Too much screen time conflicts with other really important things for kids, he says, like staying active, doing homework, reading, and playing.

When kids are in front of a screen, Dr. Nohle encourages parents to join them and view programs with an educational or enriching component.

Many families aren't sticking to the limits suggested by the AAP. In a study by the University of Washington and the Seattle Children's Research Institute, published last fall in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers found many children got a whopping 60 percent more screen time than recommended: 4 hours every weekday with 3.6 hours of it happening in the home.

Tips for trimming time. Cutting back can be difficult in a culture where electronic devices are considered cool, and more and more devices become available. But it is possible. These tips offer strategies toward that goal:

  • Set firm limits early in your child's life.
  • Check with child care providers on how much screen time they allow. Make your limits and rules known.
  • Do not allow televisions or game devices in bedrooms.
  • Keep computers and laptops in the main rooms of the house, where usage (and content) can be monitored.
  • Gradually allow more computer time for homework purposes as children move through school.
  • Have a container to hold cell phones when entering the house. This will make it easier to set limits and monitor texting and smart phone use, especially during homework time. Research has shown that the human brain multitasks poorly. This means that texting while doing homework doesn't work well.
  • Follow the rules yourself.

There will be times when you break your screen time rules. But make it clear it's a special circumstance and limit those special circumstances.

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