It’s practically a given – when I go out to eat with my family I spot at least one child with their eyes glued to the screen of a smartphone or tablet. They may be watching a movie or cartoon, looking at a digital story book, playing a game or, heaven forbid, buying loads virtual goods with their parents stored credit card information. When the food arrives to their table, the child is so enthralled that they’re not interested in eating anything much to the chagrin of the parents.
Many children in America spend more hours looking at a screen (like a television, smartphone, computer, or tablet) than they do in school. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding screens for children under 2 years of age, and no more than 1 to 2 hours of screen time a day for older kids. According to Commercial Free Childhood (commercialfreechildhood.org), “How children spend their time is important - lifelong habits and behaviors are formed in childhood.”
Healthy Kids in a Digital World: Screen-Time Facts, compiled by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, states, “Research shows that screen time gets in the way of activities known to be good for young children, like playing creatively and interacting with caring grownups. And kids who spend less time with screens fall asleep faster, sleep longer, eat healthier, and get more exercise.”
Unfortunately, many children spend four or more hours per day looking at a screen instead of exploring their environment, interacting with family members, or exercising by playing with other children. Some may even go to bed with their tablet in hand resulting in poor quality sleep. Those who watch screens at night usually take longer to fall asleep, and miss out on beneficial periods of deep, restorative sleep.
One way to counter act sleep issues is to make the bedroom a screen-free area. Remove the television from the child’s room, and make a rule to put away electronic devices early in the evening several hours before bedtime. You should also turn the television off in the family room and encourage children to play, draw, get ready for bed, and read instead. Excessive screen time has also been linked to an increase in food intake, inactivity, and obesity.
TV, video games, and the internet can be habit forming resulting in resistance to the changes at first. However, children can adapt and can get used to the new routine quickly. Stick with it and find the techniques that can help your particular family to unplug and play. For example, change your living room layout so that the television is not the focus of the room. Instead make room for an activity table kids can make artwork on, eat snacks, play with their toys, and most importantly interact with each other and the adults.
Another alternative is to take kids outside for some genuine free play which allows children to naturally create their own fun using their imagination and all their senses. Young children enjoy running, climbing, exploring, and interacting with the natural world. Periods of play outdoors help children develop strong, healthy bodies which is key to their growth and development. Activities could include drawing with sidewalk chalk, making mud pies, building tents, and more.
While technology and screens in general are not bad, the excessive use of them can be detrimental to developing children. Commercial Free Childhood has found that, “There’s no evidence to support the popular view that children must start using screen technologies early on to succeed in a digital world.” The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine
Reported, “Children who spend less time watching television in early years tend to do better in school, have a healthier diet, be more physically active, and be better able to engage in schoolwork in later elementary school.”
Considering all the benefits of less screen time challenge your family to avoid screens for a day, or even a whole week. Who knows, after camping in the backyard your kids may be inspired to go hiking, join the scouts, or save the planet too! For tips on reducing screen time, and ideas for games and alternative family activities visit Screen Free at www.screenfree.org.