How to Set Healthy Screen Time Habits: A Guide for Parents

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Depending on how we use it, technology can be either a priceless tool or endless distraction. Through computers, smartphones, and tablets, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips that can be both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. Too much screen time, however, isn’t healthy for anyone and can lead to serious consequences.

Today’s children are digital natives, which means that they’ve grown up surrounded by technology from the time they were born. While older generations needed to learn how to use digital media, our children face a different task: managing and using screen time in healthy ways.

October 14-18 is Digital Citizenship Week, so now is the perfect time to talk with children about healthy screen time habits. Read on to learn all about types of screen time, how much screen time the experts recommend, and how to set healthy digital media habits at home.

What is Screen Time?

We all know the importance of healthy digital habits, but what exactly does screen time encompass? Screen time here is defined as any activity done in front of a screen. This includes TV and computer time, but also time spent on video games, phones, and any other visual devices.

It’s also important to understand the difference between active and passive screen time. Screen time that’s active is like brain candy: it engages a child’s mind or body in a way that involves more than just watching. When your child is playing an educational video game or video chatting with a relative, for example, that is active screen time.

Passive screen time activities, on the other hand, don’t involve anything but sitting down and watching. Think TV, YouTube, or movies. For toddlers and children under 5 years old, active screen time is preferred. If your child watches a cartoon or two on occasion, that’s totally fine—just prioritize active screen time as much as you can.

The Problem with Excessive Screen Time

Trying to get rid of screen time is a nearly impossible feat in this digital age. But it is important to manage it. The effects of excessive screen time on children can be both serious and long-lasting, and they include:[3,8,10,11]

  • Insomnia
  • Depression and low self-esteem
  • Decreased physical activity
  • Attention span problems
  • Behavioral issues

On average, young children are exposed to 4.1 hours of screen time per day.[7] While screen time usage is on the rise, its form has changed over the past decade. A child’s time spent watching TV is declining and being replaced with computer and phone usage, as well as video games.[12] While this increase in active screen time is encouraging, most kids are still spending too much time in front of a screen.

Many children are exposed to excessive screen time, but some are more at-risk than others. Low-income students are most likely to use screen time excessively, in part because their families may not have access to non-digital educational resources.[6] Additionally, older children are more likely than younger children to use too much digital media each day.[7]

Excessive screen time can be detrimental, but teaching children positive habits pays off. Children with healthy screen time boundaries are more likely to be engaged in school and to interact more often with their parents and friends.[4] Not only can you improve your child’s academic progress but their overall well-being, too.

Recommended Screen Time for Kids by Age

On average, children have regular access to at least five different screens at home.[1] This may sound like a lot at first, but it adds up quickly. If two caretakers in the home have their own smartphone and there’s a TV in the living room, that’s three screens already.

That’s why understanding and following healthy screen time recommendations is so important. Technology can be a helpful resource, especially since it’s so integrated into our modern lives, but we need to manage it to maintain good digital health and wellness.

The American Association of Pediatrics has set the following daily screen time recommendations by age:[17]

  • 18 months or younger: No screen time except video chatting
  • 2–5 years old: One hour of high-quality digital activities or programming
  • 6 or older: Consistent limits to prevent screen time getting in the way of sleep, physical activity, or other healthy behaviors

As you can see, the answer to how much screen time is too much can vary based on several factors, including the child’s age. But the younger a child is, the more their digital media usage should be monitored. Because the majority of children under 5 years old are at-risk for too much low-quality screen time, managing how often your child uses a screen—and being aware of what they do with it—is critical.[9]

Healthy Screen Time Starts at Home

What’s the strongest predictor of how much screen time a child gets each day? Their parents’ screen time usage.[2] This means that as your child’s caretaker, you can make the biggest difference for your child’s healthy digital media habits. Try to keep your own screen time usage within the American Pediatric Association’s recommended amounts. This can be tough if your job involves screen time, but if you can keep healthy habits at home, it sets a good example for your child.

Also, you can encourage active screen time over its passive counterpart.[19] While it’s okay for children to have a little of both, active digital media is generally more intellectually stimulating. Plus, active screen time can involve interactive pastimes like video chatting with relatives who live far away. If you can give your child at least a few on-screen activities that involve interaction with others, that can help prevent some of the negative effects of excessive screen time.[15]

Finally, set clear rules and limitations with your child on how much digital media they can access.[5] This can include not only which websites or media they are allowed to view, but also when they are allowed to view it. You could, for example, only allow social media use for fifteen minutes after finishing their homework. You might also consider installing an app that can check or limit screen time usage on your digital devices.[18]

5 Quick Tips on Limiting Screen Time at Home

Like everything, digital media is at its best in moderation. Too much screen time for kids can have long-lasting consequences.

Keep these five tips in mind to help children develop healthy habits with digital media:

  • Screen time management is as much about quality as it is quantity. Instead of watching TV, for example, encourage your child to play an educational game.
  • Use the American Association of Pediatrics’ Media Time Calculator to get a sense of your child’s current screen time usage and make adjustments.[16]
  • Set screen-free hours every day, during which your child cannot use digital media. That way, they can make choices about what they do during their screen time.[13]
  • One of the best ways to keep screen time usage under control is to be a good role model. Try to limit your screen time to approximately two hours a day outside of work.[14]
  • Give your child internet safety tips as part of discussing healthy screen time. Make rules with your child about which sites they can access and how to stay safe online.[18]

Sources:

  1. Sigman, A. Time for a view on screen time. Disease in Childhood, October 2012, 97(11), pp. 935-942.
  2. Lauricella, A.R., Wartella, E., and Rideout, V.J. Young children’s screen time: The complex role of parent and child factors. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 2015, 36, pp. 11-17.
  3. Kremer, P., Elshaug, C., Leslie, E., Toumbourou, J.W., Patton, G.C., and Williams, J. Physical activity, leisure-time screen use and depression among children and young adolescents. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, March 2014, 17(2), pp. 183-187.
  4. Richards, R., McGee, R., Williams, S.M., Welch, D., and Hancox, R.J. Adolescent Screen Time and Attachment to Parents and Peers. Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, 2010, 164(3), pp. 258-262.
  5. Ramirez, E.R., Norman, G.J., Rosenberg, D.E., Kerr, J., Saelens, B.E., Durant, N., and Sallis, J.F. Adolescent Screen Time and Rules to Limit Screen Time in the Home. Journal of Adolescent Health, 48(4), April 2011, pp. 379-385.
  6. Carlson, S.A., Fulton, J.E., Lee, S.M., Foley, J.T., Heitzler, C., and Huhman, M. Influence of Limit-Setting and Participation in Physical Activity on Youth Screen Time. Pediatrics, July 2010, 126(1), pp. 89-96.
  7. Tandon, P.S., Zhou, C., Lozano, P., and Christakis, D.A. Preschoolers’ Total Daily Screen Time at Home and by Type of Child Care. The Journal of Pediatrics, February 2011, 158(2), pp. 297-300.
  8. Seattle Children’s Hospital. Screen Time. Retrieved from seattlechildrens.org: https://www.seattlechildrens.org/globalassets/documents/for-patients-and-families/ce/CE053-screen-time.pdf.
  9. Hinkley, T., Salmon, J., Okely, A.D., Crawford, D., and Hesketh, K. Preschoolers’ physical activity, screen time, and compliance with recommendations. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, March 2012, 44(3), pp. 458-465.
  10. Hale, L., and Guan, S. Screen time and sleep among school-aged children and adolescents: A systematic literature review. Sleep Medicine Reviews, June 2015, 21, pp. 50-58.
  11. Carson, V., Pickett, W., and Janssen, I. Screen time and risk behaviors in 10- to 16-year-old Canadian youth. Preventive Medicine, February 2011, 52(2), pp. 99-103.
  12. Bucksch, J., Sigmundova, D., Hamrick, Z., Troped, P.J., Melkevik, O., Ahluwalia, N., Borraccino, A., Tynjala, J., Kalman, M., and Inchley, J. International Trends in Adolescent Screen-Time Behaviors From 2002 to 2010. Journal of Adolescent Health, April 2016, 58(4), pp. 417-425.
  13. Lawson Foundation. Tips for reducing screen time. Retrieved from haveaballtogether.ca: https://haveaballtogether.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/HaveABall_ScreenTime.pdf.
  14. We Can! Staff. Parent Tips: Help Your Kids Reduce Screen Time and Move More. Retrieved from nhlbi.nih.gov: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/downloads/reduce-screen-time.pdf.
  15. Learning Works for Kids Staff. A Parent’s Guide to Screen Time. Retrieved from southcountychildandfamily.com: https://southcountychildandfamily.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/ParentGuideScreenTime.pdf.
  16. American Academy of Pediatrics. Family Media Plan. Retrieved from healthychildren.org: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx#home
  17. American Academy of Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use. Retrieved from aap.org: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx
  18. Blum-Ross, A., and Sonia Livingstone. Families and screen time: Current advice and emerging research. Retrieved from eprints.lse.ac.uk: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/66927/1/Policy%20Brief%2017-%20Families%20%20Screen%20Time.pdf
  19. Sweetser, P., Johnson, D., Ozdowska, A., and Wyeth, P. Active versus Passive Screen Time for Young Children. Retrieved from ledevoir.com: https://www.ledevoir.com/documents/pdf/screen_time.pdf.

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