Kids and Screen Time: How Much Is Too Much?

Why You Should Limit Screen Time

15 Reasons to Limit Screen Time – And What To Do Instead

Are you guilty of turning on the TV for your kid when you need to get something done?

I know I am.

I really try to limit my kids’ screen time.

IPads are reserved for road trips… usually.  The TV is only on once a day for about an hour… or so.  I only allow my kids to watch my phone in emergency situations (like at a restaurant or doctor’s office)… most of the time.

Even though I have really good intentions of limiting my kids’ screen time, I typically end up allowing them to watch at least twice as much as I intend to.  The thing is, I’m busy!  I have lots of things to do, like make dinner, fix something around the house, call the insurance company, put the baby down for her nap, and write an occasional blog post.  There are times when I need my child to be quiet, or need them to be occupied.  A screen seems to be a near perfect, free babysitter.

Except that screen time is actually pretty damaging to your child.

So before you put hand your kid their iPad, here are 15 things to consider.

1) Normal is not healthy.

You may be thinking, well my kid doesn’t watch nearly as much TV as so-and-so’s kid.  That may be true, but so-and-so’s kid is not the standard of healthy TV viewing.  Kids today are inundated with screens.  They are handed tablets at school, they watch their mom’s phone while waiting for an appointment (guilty!), they turn the TV on before dinner and then play games on their iPads when dinner is done.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children aged 2-5 only watch 1 hour of high quality programming per day.  Think Sesame Street, not My Little Pony.  And I don’t know about your kids, by my kids are not watching Sesame Street.  They are watching junky, sassy language filled garbage TV that is actually MADE for kids.  On its face, its nothing terrible.  Its children’s programming, like Trolls, or the above mentioned My Little Pony.  And you tell yourself that it has some important life lesson (friendship?), but it seems like every time I watch along with them, its something like a Troll’s head turning around in a circle like it’s demon possessed (yes that is actually in an episode of Trolls… why do my kids need to see that?).

But watching a screen is also a double edged sword. In addition to potentially seeing things that are not educational or developmentally appropriate, a child who is viewing a screen is not playing.  Which brings me to my next point…

2) Play is extremely important for your child.

When your child is watching TV, they aren’t playing with toys.  According to the NAECY, play teaches things like cognitive skills (ex. pretending to work at a store), physical abilities (ex. building blocks and jumping), vocabulary (ex. “Mom, what’s this called?”), social skills (ex. playing together with others, working together to create something with legos), and literacy skills (ex. making a sign for a lemonade stand).  And even though you may be able to make a thin case that TV increases your child’s vocabulary, experiential learning is a much better teacher than a screen is.

Think about it.  Do you learn how to cook by watching a cooking show or by actually making the recipe?  It is the same for kids.

3) According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under the age of 2 should not be watching a screen at all.

They don’t understand what they are seeing, cannot follow the storyline, and are often confused by the bright colors and moving pictures.  Additionally, this is a time when they should be learning about the physical properties of themselves and the world around them.  Seeing a ball rolling towards them, touching it to feel that it is round, pushing it to see how force moves it… these provide so much more valuable information for a developing brain than just seeing a ball roll across a screen.

4) Screen viewing inhibits creativity and imagination.

When a child is watching the TV or playing a game on the iPad, they are passively taking in whatever is on the screen.  Their brains don’t have the “space” or the need to engage in imaginative thinking.  Sure, a child may act out what they saw later during play, but instead of coming up with a play scheme on their own, they are imitating what they saw.

And screen viewing doesn’t only have detrimental effects while the child is watching TV.  It also affects them throughout the rest of their day (and life!).

5) Screen viewing reduces a child’s need and ability to think.

When you watch a television show, you are seeing short 3-5 second clips of an image the screen before the screen shifts to something else.  This may just be a different angle of the same image, but it is still requiring the brain to stop thinking about what it was previously and start thinking about something new. This reduces the brains ability to continue a thought.  One has to wonder if this has anything to do with the increase in child ADHD… which is characterized in part by a lack of focus on one thing for any length of time.  And this is not just a supposition.

6) There actually is a correlation between TV viewing and ADHD.

Now, correlation is not causation.  Watching TV does not cause ADHD.  But watching TV is linked with ADHD.  And studies show that watching TV causes attention problems in all people.  This is likely exasperating the attention and focus challenges that a child with ADHD is already presupposed to.

7) Even just having the TV on in the background is harmful for your child.

Studies have found that it inhibits creative play in all ages, and that it reduces language skills in children who are pre-verbal.

8) “Educational” does not mean your child is learning.

Just because a show touts that it is education, does not mean that your child is actually learning valuable information.  The information that they actually need to be learning at that age.

For example, is it cool that my four year old knows from Kratt’s Creatures that a cheetah is a superfast creature, with very sharp claws that lives in the desert (his actual words)?  Yes, it is!  But is that the most valuable thing that he could and should be learning at this age?  No!  He should be learning how to play with others, use his imagination, build a blanket fort, pump his legs to make a swing go, and to color inside the lines of a picture.  He also should be learning to wait… on to my next point…

9) A screen provides instant gratification.  Life does not.

When you can press a button and watch exactly what you want, can fast forward or skip through what you don’t want, and can change the programming at will, you are getting instant gratification.  Life isn’t like this folks.  Sometimes, you have to wait.  You have to sit through a boring lecture.   You are required to wait for a table at a busy restaurant.  You have to wait an hour for the pharmacist to get your ZPack (what are they even doing back there??).  Having such ready access to something that provides such immediate gratification is setting your child up for failure in many other areas of life… like social skills.

10) Screens affect your child’s social skills.

One study found that children who stopped watching a screen for five days became better at reading other’s emotions.  This shouldn’t be too hard to figure out why.  Have you seen a children’s program recently?  The characters have those HUGE expressive eyes that are really entertaining to watch.  They also very expressly display how the character is feeling.  A mad character has angry looking, red eyes.  A frustrated character can worry lines drawn on and smoke coming out of their ears.

Limit Children's Screen Time
Why You Should Limit Your Kid’s Screen Time

But in real life, emotions are often displayed in much more subtle ways.  A slight furrowing of the brow and narrowing of the eyes indicates concern.  A crinkle in the corner of the eye can show pride or admiration.  These emotions may be being completely missed by children who are used to seeing very clear displays of emotion on a screen.

Developing good social skills is essential for lifelong success in school, the workplace, relationships and beyond.

11) Increased screen time equals increased weight.

For years now, studies have shown that the more time a kid spends in front of a screen, the more likely they are to gain excess weight.  This is due to several things.  First, they are sedentary.  They aren’t moving their bodies and burning calories.  Second, they are more frequently eating snacks while watching TV (aren’t we all?).  And third, marketers actively created campaigns to promote sugary, low nutritional options to children through commercials and ads.  And as humans, we are incredibly susceptible to the power of suggestion.  How many times have you seen an ad for a pizza place and gotten pizza for dinner?  This is the same for children.  If they are watching a show and a commercial for a Ding Dong comes on (do they even still make those?), your kid is more likely to ask for a sugary snack or to make a poor food choice in the future.

12) Screen time affects sleep.

And we want nothing to do with anything that means our kids (or we) get less sleep, am I right?  The blue lights that are emitted from screens reduces the duration of sleep, and reduces the production of melatonin (which is a naturally produced sleep hormone in your body).

13) Apps gather data on your family.

While COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, prohibits companies from gathering data from individuals under the age of 13, tests have shown that only half of all apps comply with this.  So your child’s personal information, name, age, likes, dislikes, activities, etc., is all being gathered and stored for marketing purposes, and more.  When I think about that, I feel uncomfortable.

13) Tech gurus don’t even let their children use their products.

Did you know that Steve Jobs didn’t even let his kids use an iPad?  When asked how his kids liked the new iPad, he responded, “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”  Um, what?  If the creator of the iPad limit’s his children’s technology usage to the point that they don’t even use an iPad, shouldn’t we?

14) Potential affects of radiation.

Did you know that devices like iPads and cells phones emit radiation (and that radiation exposure causes cancer?)?  Now I’m not saying that watching an iPad causes cancer.  I am saying that we do not yet understand the potential effects that holding a device that emits radiation for hours of the day may have.  The technology is just too new to know how our bodies may be affected, but there is definitely enough information out there to give you pause.  In fact, the National Institute of Health just released a study that found that cell phone radiation was linked to cancer in male lab rats.

15) TV viewing recommendations.

So with all this in mind, here are some recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics for how your family should interact with screens.

  • “Avoid screen time in infants and children under 2
  • Limit screen time in children older than 2 years old to no more than 1-2 hours a day (depending on their age)
  • Establish “screen free” zones in your home, such as in the bedroom and dining room
  • Consider the rating system of shows, movies, and games to avoid exposing your child to inappropriate content
  • Monitor your child’s use of screens and put questionable content into context
  • Teach your child about the use of advertising on children
  • Offer your child educational media and non-electronic content in the form of books, newspapers, and board games
  • Encourage your child to play outside, read, participate in hobbies, and use their imaginations in free play”

Are you feeling sufficiently guilty yet?  Me too.

In fact, armed with this information, we are doing a tech free weekend.  Followed by a much stricter TV viewing schedule.  No more Netflix, because my kids only watch junky shows on there.  Only educational programming, and only one show choice each per day.  I have a feeling I’ll be putting the info from this post on temper tantrums into practice this week.

So what are they going to be doing instead?

Here are 15 ideas of activities that can occupy your kids so you can get something done!

  1. Play outside.
  2. Build a pillow and blanket fort.
  3. Give your child a small tub of water and some cups and brushes.  They’ll know what to do!
  4. Magna-tiles
  5. Play school.
  6. Play with Playdoh.  They’ve improved it so much, and I’ve never had it get stuck on anything like it used to when we were kids (anyone else ruin a carpet?).
  7. Have a pretend camping trip.
  8. Kinetic Sand.  Really fun, and not nearly as hard to clean up as you’re imagining.  It vacuums right up!
  9. Hunt for “bad guys.”
  10. Read books.
  11. Play house.
  12. Put on a play.   I LOVED this when I was a kid.  Sadly, they retired these kits in 1994, but you may be able to snag this one off Amazon, or find something similar. 
  13. Take a bath.  My kids play for HOURS in the bath every day.
  14. Color, or craft.
  15. Make a spiderweb for them to crawl through.  Find a hallway and tape a long piece of string back and forth on opposite sides of the hall.  They’ll be able to crawl over and under the strings, using their bodies and imaginations.  Ideally, they won’t pull it off… or will be able to reattach it themselves though.

So next time you need a free babysitter, choose something that will not only amuse your child, but will also benefit them in the short and long run.

I know you’re tired and busy, friend, because I am tired and busy too.  But while the days are long, the years are short.  This time will go by quickly, and your kids will be much better off from all the time they spent learning about themselves, others and their world.

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