Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were concerns about how screen time affects the development of our youth. This school year, more than ever before, American students will be engaging in learning through media platforms. While some school districts have chosen to reopen schools to in-person learning, there will still be a large focus on online learning.
As a result, most children and teens will have fewer school responsibilities and less access to extracurricular activities or social opportunities.
This puts strain on parents by adding the responsibility of supervising their children during the day in addition to their own jobs. Allowing youth extra time with screen entertainment is an easy solution for parents who are overwhelmed. However, both physical and psychological development can be affected by excessive exposure to screens.
Too much screen time can cause sleep and eating disorders, obesity, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and attention or behavior problems both at home and at school. In moderation, appropriate screen activities can be a part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
Screen entertainment is so engaging that most children and teens lack the discipline to limit their own use. Left unchecked, unhealthy screen habits quickly take over the lives of many youth and replace positive activities such as exercise, socializing and sleep.
Due to screen-time necessities during the time of COVID-19, previously recommended restrictions no longer apply. However, there are ways to make the best of your child’s increased use of screens. Health and psychology guidelines suggest three factors that make up healthy screen use: time, quality and supervision. Here are some tips:
• One screen-free meal per day. Screen time during meals has been linked to eating junk food and increased weight in children. Popular food ads can influence what children eat. Talking during mealtimes can help ease stress and shape your child’s social and emotional health.
• Two screen-free hours before bed. Setting screens aside two hours before bedtime makes it easier to fall asleep and having a restful night of sleep. The “blue light” from screens can disrupt the natural sleep cycle. Try to keep phones out of the bedroom at night.
• Identify games and apps that are interactive, educational and age-appropriate. Truly educational content requires a child to think, be creative and socially interactive. Think of a child watching 30 minutes of educational content compared to the same child playing 30 minutes of a highly violent video game. Both involve 30 minutes of screen time, but the experience and impact on the child are vastly different. Find educational apps that can entertain your child or teen while developing problem-solving skills.
• Establish a Screen Buddy System. It is not healthy for any child to be alone on a device for hours on end without supervision. Set up a time to engage in screen time with your child that is more than just watching as a bystander. Find multi-player games or watch a family-friendly film.
Parents, it is OK to cut yourselves some slack on screen time limits while you are stuck at home. Instead, focus on the quality of your child’s screen experience. This can be as simple as inviting children to participate in creating a daily schedule or a family media plan (www.healthychildren.org/MediaUsePlan). A media plan should provide a variety of both screen and screen-free time and activities outside of school responsibilities. Parents can also set a positive example by keeping the same standard for themselves by setting up regular off-screen activities.
Shaleen Doctor, MD, is a resident physician in the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health. She can be reached 406-247-3306.
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