Healthy Habits for TV, Video Games, and the Internet

Children’s entertainment and education changed forever with the introduction of the internet. Computers, laptops, handheld gaming devices, and mobile devices, such as tablets and phones, provide entertainment and make learning fun. Despite being helpful for our children, the “screen time” associated with using computers, mobile phones, tablets, and, of course, TV, has a downside. Too much screen time can contribute to childhood obesity, risky behaviors, sleep and attention problems, eyestrain, anxiety, and depression. There are several ways you can reduce your child’s screen time.

Path to improved well being

For children over age 2, limit their total screen time (TV, computer, phone, and tablet) at home to two hours or less a day. Avoid screen time for children under age 2. That means your child will have to make some tough choices on how to spend that two hours. That’s a tall order for parents to enforce, especially with a house full of technology. Tips that help families stick to the two-hour rule include:

  • Don’t allow your child to have a TV, computer, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone in his or her bedroom.
  • Don’t allow your child to charge his or her electronic devices in the bedroom at night.
  • Practice what you preach. If you don’t want your child tied to his or her electronics nonstop, then you should put yours away, too.
  • Require more physical activity. Help your child remember how good it feels to run, jump, and play outdoors. Recommend activities that match your child’s interests. For example, if your child likes hidden treasure computer games, develop an outdoor treasure hunt. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends children get 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
  • Make family mealtime a screen-free time. This encourages lively, dinnertime conversation that can expand your child’s interests.
  • Multitask during screen time. If your child chooses to spend his or her two hours of screen time watching TV, have them do another activity as well. Lifting weights, folding clothes, jogging in place, and push-ups are all good ways to move and enjoy screen time.
  • Eliminate screen time as an incentive or punishment. This puts too much emphasis on the activity.
  • Consider limiting screen time to certain days of the week. The recommendation may be two hours per day, but less screen time isn’t going to hurt your child.
  • Limit commercials and advertising. Encourage your children to mute TV commercials or skip internet advertising. TV commercials are a good time to get up and do something else for a few minutes, including drinking water, climbing the stairs, or completing parts of a household chore.
  • Talk to your family about screen time. It’s important to establish it as a culture and an expectation within your home.

If you have difficulty enforcing the two-hour limit, use a timer. When your child does have screen time, consider choosing something the entire family can enjoy, and always check ratings for games, apps, and TV shows. Finally, consider challenging your family to a week of no screen time, such as during national Screen-Free Week. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Things to consider

Screen time leads to a number of health and wellness issues. Obesity, for example, is the result of eating too many calories and not getting enough exercise. Children who sit in front of electronic screens for long periods and snack will gain weight. Obesity may lead to many illnesses over time, including asthma.

Digital eyestrain can occur from looking at screens for long periods of time. A child’s eyes are still developing between the ages of 5 and 13. Too much screen time can lead to tired eyes, double vision, itching, and burning eyes. Eyestrain contributes to headache, neck pain, and difficulty focusing.

Excessive screen time is harmful to your child’s emotional well being. Children often suffer from anxiety because they are constantly logged onto the internet, playing a video game, or watching TV. Depression is possible because of the many hours a child sits alone, often in the dark, engaged in screen time.

Other physical side effects from too much screen time include trouble sleeping and focusing in the classroom. Excessive screen time can lead to risky behaviors, too. Being online with friends or strangers may encourage children to participate in sexual activity, sexting, drug use, and bullying.

Questions for your doctor

  • Should my child’s eyes be a certain distance from the screen?
  • Will eyestrain cause my child to have to wear glasses?
  • Does homework count toward the two-hour screen time limit?
  • Can screen time also damage my child’s ears?
  • Should I be concerned about excessive screen time at school?