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Making a Plan for Summer Screen Time

Beyond limiting the quantity of time kids spend on screens, parents should consider the quality of the screen time.



School-age children are spending an increasing amount of time on computers, tablets and smartphones. Parents need to be cautious about the hours children are spending in front of screens because every hour spent in front of a screen is an hour not participating in real-life activities. Limiting screen time is only part of the equation, however. Parents also need to pay attention to the quality of screen time to which their children are being exposed.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that American children are spending more than seven hours daily with computers, video games and televisions.

Experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recommend that children under the age of 2 not be exposed to electronic screens at all because it impedes rather than enhances brain development.

Between the ages of 2 and 5, the AAP recommends limiting screen time to one hour of high quality exposure daily. In older children, an hour a day with tablets or smartphones may actually improve coordination, quicken reflexes, and develop some types of language skills. Educational programming, such as “Sesame Street,” can provide wonderful learning opportunities.

As children enter the elementary school years, the recommended amount of screen time becomes much less clear. Decisions are more complicated for several reasons. Some experts include screen time at school as well as time used for homework. Others don’t. And how children are using screens becomes as important as the amount of time spent with them, so it is up to parents to gauge the effects on their individual children. Even regular, moderate amounts of screen time can begin to cause serious symptoms in some children. Common negative symptoms include irritability, low frustration tolerance, poor eye contact, anxiety, shortened attention span and argumentativeness. Other effects can include obesity, sleep issues, impaired social skills, aggression and violent activity. These children may have trouble managing their emotions and comforting themselves.

Symptoms of too much screen time can mimic behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, and even mental health disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The amount of time spent in front of a screen should never be allowed to interfere with social interaction, physical activity or sleep.

What can parents do to help their children navigate the digital world? Children can be taught to think of digital devices as tools. Children can access these tools to help with homework. They can also facilitate communication in some cases. Some devices and applications offer an abundance of creativity. Parents can discuss and impose rules in the virtual world that are similar to the real world, such as teaching children to be kind online as they would be face-to-face. Parents also must be aware of the activities in which the child is engaging. They must also know with whom the child is interacting online. One of the best ways a parent can monitor these things is to spend time playing right alongside the child.

School-age children are on the internet at school and at home, and they do need supervision and guidance from adults. However, do not think parental supervision and filters will solve all issues. I remember doing a google search for images of a “hamburger” for one of my sons, and was shocked at one of the images this brought up. I have also been made aware of several occasions that students have found their way to pornographic sites on school devices. Schools are careful to use the strongest filters available, but no filter is perfect, even in a school or library setting.

There are, however, some steps that parents can take to minimize problems with digital media and devices. Parents can make sure that devices are powered off at night. The AAP recommends keeping electronic devices out of the bedrooms of children. Not only do children stay awake using the devices, the light that is emitted delays the release of melatonin, which can interfere with sleep. By keeping devices in a common living area, parents can also supervise activities more closely, and ensure that homework is completed before allowing entertainment activities on devices.

To help you define and implement a plan for your family, the AAP offers an online tool to individualize media use. You may access this tool at www.HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan.

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