The amount of time children (and adults) spend in front of a “screen” is increasing drastically. A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch a screen an average of 2 hours a day. This is potentially detrimental to children because the first 2 years of life are considered a critical time for brain development. TV and other electronic media interfere with exploring, playing, and interacting with parents and others, which encourages learning and healthy physical and social development. Here are some facts and tips to reduce screen time.
- Kids under age 6 watch an average of about 2 hours of screen media a day, primarily TV and videos or DVDs
- Kids and teens 8 to 18 years spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a TV screen and almost 2 additional hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under age 2 have no screen time, and that kids older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming.
As kids get older, too much screen time can interfere with activities such as being physically active, reading, doing homework, playing with friends, and spending time with family.
Health experts have long linked excessive TV-watching to obesity. While watching TV, kids are inactive and tend to snack. They’re also bombarded with ads that encourage them to eat unhealthy foods like potato chips and empty-calorie soft drinks that often become preferred snack foods.
Studies have shown that decreasing the amount of TV kids watched led to less weight gain and lower body mass index (BMI — a measurement derived from someone’s weight and height).
Of course, TV in moderation can be a good thing: Preschoolers can get help learning the alphabet on public television, older children can learn about science and history on a variety of channels and shows, and parents can keep up with current events on the evening news. No doubt about it — TV can be an excellent educator and entertainer.
And no one can doubt the benefit of spending time at a computer screen to get homework done. But despite its advantages, too much television can be detrimental:
- Children who consistently spend more than 4 hours per day watching TV are more likely to be overweight.
- Kids who view violent acts are more likely to show aggressive behavior but also fear that the world is scary and that something bad will happen to them.
- TV characters often depict risky behaviors, such as smoking and drinking, and also reinforce gender-role and racial stereotypes.
Log Screen Time. Start tracking how much time your family spends in front of various “screens”. This includes TV and DVD watching, playing video games, and using the computer for something other than school or work. Get Your Screen Time Log Here!
Hopefully you’ve already been tracking how much physical activity your family is getting. Compare the two charts to get a sense of what changes need to be made.
Be a Good Role Model. You need to be a good role model and limit your own screen time to no more than two hours per day. If everyone else in the house sees that you are doing your best they’ll be more likely to do the same.
Talk to Your Family About Being Active. Talk to your family about the importance of sitting less and moving more to maintain a healthy weight. Being more active actually makes people feel better and gives them more energy. Being more active can lead them to develop and/or perfect new skills, such as riding a bike or shooting hoops, which could lead to more fun with friends.
Set Screen Time Limits for the Household. Create a house rule that limits screen time to two hours every day. Remember, screen time includes television, movie watching, game playing and Internet surfing. More importantly, enforce the rule.
Try a weekday ban on TV. Schoolwork, sports activities, and job responsibilities make it tough to find extra family time during the week. Record weekday shows or save TV time for weekends, and you’ll have more family togetherness time to spend on meals, games, physical activity, and reading during the week.
Don’t allow your child to watch TV while doing homework. Kids can’t learn effectively if they are distracted by TV. Just say no.
Create Screen-free Bedrooms. Kids who have TVs in their room tend to watch about 1.5 hours more TV a day than those who don’t. Likewise, it is more difficult to monitor computer activity if it’s located in a child’s bedroom. Plus, it keeps kids in their room instead of spending time with the rest of the family.
Make Meal Time = Family Time. Make eating together a priority and schedule family meals at least two to three times a week. Family meals are a good time to talk to each other. Research shows that families who eat together tend to eat more nutritious meals.
If you have a TV in the eating area of your home, move it. Turn off the TV during meals so that you can’t hear it.
Make Screen Time = Active Time. In each one hour television show there are 20 minutes of commercials. During those breaks do something active! Stretch, do yoga and/or lift weights. Or, challenge the family to see who can do the most push-ups, jumping jacks, or leg lifts during TV commercial breaks. If you do play video games try some of the more active oriented dancing or Wii games.
Provide Other Activities to Reduce Screen Time. Watching TV can become a habit and it makes it easy to forget there are other activities in which to participate. Be sure to provide you family with ideas and/or alternatives to watching TV, such as playing outside, getting a new hobby or learning a sport. Stock the room where you have your TV with plenty of other non-screen entertainment (books, kids’ magazines, toys, puzzles, board games, etc.) to encourage kids to do something other than watch the tube.
Don’t Use TV Time as Reward or Punishment for Kids. Providing extra TV time for good behavior or less TV time for poor behavior can make TV seem even more important to children. TV viewing is allowed only after chores and homework is completed.
Discuss TV Ads. According to the AAP, kids in the United States see 40,000 commercials each year. From the junk food and toy advertisements during Saturday morning cartoons to the appealing promos on the backs of cereal boxes, marketing messages inundate kids of all ages.
Under the age of 8 years, most kids don’t understand that commercials are for selling a product. Children 6 years and under are unable to distinguish program content from commercials, especially if their favorite character is promoting the product. Even older kids may need to be reminded of the purpose of advertising.
Help children understand that just because their favorite TV characters/actors eat or drink it—doesn’t mean a food or drink is good for them. Ask thought-provoking questions like, “What do you like about that?,” “Do you think it’s really as good as it looks in that ad?,” and “Do you think that’s a healthy choice?”
When kids ask for products advertised explain ads are designed to make people want things they don’t necessarily need. And these ads are often meant to make us think that these products will make us happier somehow.
Reducing screen time is something you’ll likely have to ease your family into but the rewards in improved health will be worth it!