Screen Time And Family Time: Healthy Ways to Make It All Work

With 24/7 coverage of the Winter Olympics tempting us to watch the competitions on any and all of our screens anytime anywhere, we all have to consider “no media” time to maintain a healthy life.

Adults spend more time looking at their screens– whether that is on mobile devices, laptops or television– engaged in social media and programming than they spend working in a typical eight-hour job.

Nielsen reports the average of 11 hours is nearly double what children and teens from 5 to 16 years old spend on screens — between five and seven hours a day.

A recent case of an Oklahoma teen charged with child pornography for trying to blackmail individuals on photos plucked from Snapchat proves that not all of the time spent on screens is innocuous entertainment.

Less serious than the digital criminal behavior lurking online, health issues for adults include computer vision syndrome, sleep problems, obesity and the discomfort from sitting for long periods.

For children and teens, the risks of long screen times are just as concerning. In a 2017 study, screen time for children has been associated with childhood obesity, with 52 percent of children more likely to be overweight than kids who have less screen time.

While it is not the screen time that causes obesity, it is the sedentary behaviors associated with sitting still while watching the television, playing video games, using a smart phone or tablet that can be unhealthy.

A 2017 study linked handheld screen times with speech delays in young children. Other studies have linked screen time use with reduced sleep and delayed sleep onset for toddlers and sleep problems for school-aged and adolescents.

Light emitting diodes, or LED, are often used to provide illumination in televisions, smartphones, and tablets, can create problems. Although the light appears as white, LED light peaks in the blue range. The effects of blue light can affect physiological functioning.

An older 2012 study shows that for adolescents having four hours of screen time equates to taking 20 minutes longer to fall asleep and that the blue light emitted from screens has a similar effect to that of caffeine.

As parents, caregivers and health care providers, frank conversations about screen times and media use can possibly pre-empt the risks associated with use. Families can be proactive when discussing media consumption in all its forms.

As a pediatric clinical nurse specialist working with parents and families for over 35 years, I have counseled parents on the effects of screen time for themselves and their children.

I begin by asking a myriad of questions including device type and what the device is used for, both parent and child perspectives on the length of time of daily use, where the devices are kept, who has access, who monitors use, and the types and lengths of time for other activities. We also talk about healthy eye care and the need for eye checkups.

I also share the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on children’s media use, which gives suggestions for how parents can handle screen time. You can adapt these guidelines for use with your family. Part of these guidelines includes the recommendation for parents to develop with their children a media plan which helps families devise a personalized family plan for how media can be used in the home. The plan can be easily updated as children grow.

Recommendations for children 18-24 months include parents being aware of how they role model use of media and watching high-quality programming with the child.

For children ages 2-5 years old, suggestions include limiting screen time to one hour per day and again watching together with the child. For children 6 years and older, experts recommend setting limits on screen time and having “no media” times such as during meal times or even while driving, having no media zones such as bedrooms, mixing in physical activities such as walking and outside play, and starting discussions around online safety, civility and respect both online and offline.

Other suggestions include playing video and computer games that your child is interested in so you know the content. Experts advise you know and understand the game’s ratings and have discussions with your children about the game.

Treating screen time as a privilege not a right is another suggestion as well as allowing screen time only after a child completes chores and homework. Use parental controls on devices and keep those devices in common areas.

Additionally, talking with your family’s health care provider as he or she can be invaluable in identifying resources for screen time and media usage and to talk about strategies to keep screen time in balance.

Lynn Mohr, Ph.D., is a registered nurse and assistant professor at Rush University College of Nursing and a Rush Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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