Screen Time: How much is too much for kids?

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By Samantha Witthuhn, Groove Contributor


Who’s one of your child’s best friends?

Is it a cousin? A neighbor? A playmate from school?

While our brains quickly rummage through the circle of kids our children know and love, we often forget about those “friends” our kids likely spend the most time with. Who might those individuals be? Well, as crazy as it sounds, those beloved besties are likely Peppa, Dora, Elmo, Shimmer, Shine, Marshall, Chase, Skye, and the list goes on and on.

With the ever-increasing proliferation of media devices throughout our homes, schools, and basic everyday lives, our little ones are given more and more opportunities to hang out with their digital “friends” by turning on, tuning out and getting sucked into ... the screen.

Whether it be Nick, Jr. on your TV, FaceTime on your smartphone, goofy games on your iPad, or the 5,781st viewing of Moana on your car’s DVD player, the exposure our kiddos are getting to screen time begs the question: how much is too much?

Before we take a stab at answering that, let’s consider for a moment the human race’s evolutionary history. (I promise this is going somewhere). We’ve all heard humans are social creatures. And when you look back at the earth’s history, that phrase holds a lot of clout. As a race, we’ve lived, survived and prospered on this planet for the vast majority of time without screens. Our bodies and needs have evolved in an environment that is largely face-to-face, making those interactions crucial for our growth and development.

So it totally makes sense when Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor at UCLA, says in the NPR article, Kids and Screen Time: What Does the Research Say?, “Our species evolved in an environment where there was only face-to face-interaction. Since we were adapted to that environment, it's likely that our skills depend on that environment. If we reduce face-to-face interaction drastically, it's not surprising that social skills would also get reduced."

Meaning, too much screen time can have a variety of negative implications, ranging from increases in childhood obesity rates, to irregular sleep patterns, and even to social and/or behavioral challenges.

Problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning.
— American Academy of Pediatrics

“Problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning,” says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in its October 2016 Recommendations for Children’s Media Use.

Look at most significant time of rapid growth for kids and you’ll see these problems especially ring true for those 0- to 5-years-old, which is the primary stage in a child’s life for critical brain development, acquisition of secure relationships, and the establishment of healthy behaviors and habits.

According to the AAP’s Media and Young Minds Policy Statement, “Children younger than 2 years need hands-on exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers to develop their cognitive, language, motor, and social-emotional skills. Because of their immature symbolic, memory, and attentional skills, infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they do from interactions with caregivers, and they have difficulty transferring that knowledge to their 3-dimensional experience.”

So, to ensure our kids get those important hands- on and face-to-face exploratory experiences, it’s important that families take the time to plan out healthy media consumption routines.

But how, in this screen-infested saga that we call life, do you do it?!

The name of the game is balance, people. Take some time to focus on those portions, doses and bites of media found on the kids menu. To do this, let’s take a trip through your home to hunt down all those face-to-screen interactions. And for this Dora-esque voyage, I promise you will not be needing a shouting map or singing backpack to be a success.

At home, you’ll find that, according to the Common Sense Media article, How much screen time is okay for my kids?, there are four main categories of screen usage:

  1. Passive consumption: watching TV, reading, and listening to music

  2. Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the Internet

  3. Communication: video-chatting and using social media

  4. Content creation: using devices to make digital art or music

While there is no real magic number guaranteed to give your kids the most enriching relationship with media, the AAP stresses the importance of providing educational media spaces, like those found on PBS, for your family and offers a few suggestions on time limits based on age. These include:

  • 0 to 18 months: The AAP suggests avoiding use of screen media altogether other than video-chatting.
     
  • 18 to 24 months: The AAP recommends parents introduce children to digital media through high-quality programming, such as Sesame Street, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.
     
  • 2- to 5-year-olds: The AAP suggests limiting screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should continue to consume media with their children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
     
  • 6-years-old and older: The AAP recommends placing consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and emphasizes the importance of ensuring that media does not take the place of sleep, physical activity and other healthy behaviors.

To help you maneuver through this media management process, the AAP even created a handy dandy Personalized Family Media Use Planning Tool to help you and your family budget your time and filter your programing based on age and educational needs.

While this media shake-up might cause some undue anxiety, it’s important to remember that reducing screen time doesn’t mean turning into the TV programing police chief. Rather, it means you becoming your child’s “media mentor.” Watching educational shows, playing logic games, and Skyping grandma with them to help them understand the media they are interacting with.

It also means prioritizing creative hands-on outlets for learning to help your kids get in touch with their own emotions and sense of personal expression. Simple activities like dancing the way a song makes you feel, acting out stories through creative movement and even short meditation exercises can serve as alternative ways to calm down and relax after a busy day.  

All that being said, we get that the way of the world is increasing screens and expanding technology. And to stay healthy, you don’t need to turn a blind eye and ignore that.

Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and a spokeswoman for the AAP, says it best in that same NPR article that, "If used appropriately, [digital media is] wonderful. We don't want to demonize media, because it's going to be a part of everybody's lives increasingly, and we have to teach children how to make good choices around it, how to limit it and how to make sure it's not going to take the place of all the other good stuff out there."