Too Much Screen Time? Here’s How to Curb It
Sedentary activity contributes to obesity in kids
Let’s jump right into the core issue: About 20 percent of kids in the U.S. today are obese or overweight, and the number is growing. Studies have shown there is a direct correlation between time spent in front of a TV, computer or other device and the number of youth who are obese. This huge childhood epidemic affects their physical and mental health, and could even be life-threatening.
More than a youth crisis
Obesity can lead to feelings of inadequacy and isolation in kids as young as 5 years old, says Dr. Garry Sigman, a pediatrician and obesity expert at Loyola University Health System and associate professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Overweight kids are often taunted and bullied by peers. Resulting risks include depression and suicidal ideation, especially in girls.
Since food can provide comfort, both for the child and the caregiver who may address a child’s unhappiness with food, the problem becomes circular.
Obesity is linked to many serious health problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, orthopedic abnormalities and cancer. According to Sigman, you are not likely to “outgrow” the problems. Obese youth are likely to stay obese through adulthood.
What is bad about screen time
Screen time—including all activities done in front of a screen such as working on a computer, playing video games, watching TV or using apps on a phone or laptop—is a sedentary activity. These activities are generally done sitting down, with very little energy expended.
Most American children spend about 3 hours a day watching TV, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Unsupervised TV watching is the worst, Sigman says. TV has a hypnotic effect that causes people to stay in place and burn fewer calories. If kids are snacking while watching TV, the problem compounds. Added together with other screen types, this can add as much as 5 to 7 hours a day of sedentary time.
In addition to obesity, too much screen time can make it hard for brains to relax and cause problems for children trying to go to sleep. Screen time has been associated with attention problems, anxiety and depression in kids.
Computers can be useful for school work, but general surfing the internet or spending too much time on social media is considered unhealthy.
Current screen time guidelines for children
Despite what you may have heard or seen in ads, videos aimed at very young children do not improve their development. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends the following screen guidelines for youth:
+ For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
+ For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
+ For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
+ Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
+ Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.
How to decrease screen time
Cutting down on screen time if kids are already used to a lot of access can be hard. Start the conversation with kids with ideas on how you each can be healthier. The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics also has these suggestions.
+ Challenge your family to go one week without watching TV or doing other screen-time activities. Find things to do with your time that get you moving and burning energy.
+ Remove the TV or computer from your child’s bedroom.
+ Do not allow TV watching during meals or homework.
+ Do not let your child eat while watching TV or using the computer.
+ Do not leave the TV on for background noise. Turn on the radio instead, or have no background noise.
+ Decide which programs to watch ahead of time. Turn off the TV when those programs are over.
+ Suggest other activities, such as family board games, puzzles, or going for a walk.
+ Keep a record of how much time is spent in front of a screen. Try to spend the same amount of time being active.
+ Be a good role model as a parent. Decrease your own screen time to 2 hours a day.
+ If it is hard not having the TV on, try using a sleep function so it turns off automatically.
What else can parents do
Some people are genetically prone to being obese. There are, however, controllable factors in addition to limiting screen time that will reduce weight issues in children. Parents and caregivers can:
+ Ensure kids get enough sleep.
+ Reduce food portion size.
+ Eliminate unhealthy snacking.
+ Provide healthy food choices, including fresh fruits and vegetables.
+ Control when and where a child eats.
+ Encourage physical activity.
+ Work with your community to create safe places for children to play outside or at community centers with recreational activities.
Also, parents who take care of their own health and weight, do not smoke and limit their own screen time are more likely to have healthier children.