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Screen Time and Your Child – Why and How to Manage: Part 1

Article contributed by Zest Pediatrics - The Nest Schools Medical Education Partner

Screen Time and Your Child - Why and How to Manage: Part 1

One of the most common concerns of parents today relates to managing the ever-present screens in our lives. This is an incredibly important topic for parents with children of all ages. Zest Pediatrics and The Nest will focus on this topic through a two-part series within the monthly Nest newsletters and with a Nest Builders live webinar session in March. 

Part one of the newsletter series will focus on why screen time is a problem and offer general suggestions on its management. Part 2 of the series will focus on recommended apps and resources to help you choose the best age-appropriate apps for your child.

Why Screens Are a Problem

The content on TV, computers, tablets, phones, and several other types of screens can all be addictive and impact early brain development. Also, screen time deprives the child of more positive brain development activities. Third, early screen time causes the development of habits, which will lead to further negative activities as the child ages (think social media and video games). So yes, early screen time is, in a way, a gateway drug.

Interacting with screens is proven to increase dopamine release in the brain, even at an early age. We have all heard of dopamine as the pleasure chemical of the brain. It is released with all pleasurable activities. Catie Madison, an occupational therapist, has written an outstanding and concise article on this topic for Vitalxchange that can be found here. In short, this dopamine release causes the desire to spend more and more time engaged with screens, thus creating an addiction.

In addition, screen time is believed to directly decrease white matter development in young brains, causing both short- and long-term impacts on children. The physiological changes that occur with excessive screen time in early childhood may impact future cognitive abilities. One study demonstrated an increase in screen time negatively impacted a child’s language development and problem-solving abilities.

Screen activities occupy time that a child could spend with brain-stimulating activities that involve exploration, language development, physical activity, and social interaction. These types of activities teach a child resilience, creativity, the joy of learning, and so much more.

Lastly, it is well established that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships promote brain development that is protective against future adversity. When a child is otherwise engaged with screens, the time establishing these relationships is diminished. This is time that is gone and never to be regained, a lost opportunity. Excessive screen time is also believed to have long-term negative impacts on weight, sleep quality, and overall mental health.

We all know that our children are little sponges. They hear and interpret everything. So, even background conversations from the TV or your phone can have a long-term impact on your child’s well-being (think about the constant negativity and violence of today’s media content).

None of this is to say that there must be absolutely no screen time. That is not realistic in today’s society. However, there are ways to decrease the impact of screens and create responsible habits that limit the associated consequences. Some screen time can be educational and help foster the same developmentally beneficial, safe, stable, and nurturing relationships (think FaceTime with loved ones and interactive screen time between parent and child).

Guidelines for the Responsible Use of Screens Birth to Five Years

It is recommended that screen time plans be developed for the entire family. These should be updated regularly as a child grows, and more children may be added to the family. The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have general guidelines. There are many other professional recommendations available. We have summarized and outlined reasonable guidelines for your review.

Time Limits

Setting time limits helps all family members adhere to the plan. It also assures kids spend time in other activities to round out their developmental play. It is generally recommended that children under 18 months of age entirely avoid screens unless it is for family video chatting. After 18 months, screen time should be limited to one hour per day till at least five years of age. It is beneficial to set a timer to help kids know when their time is up. It also may be helpful to break up the hour into segments, such as four 15-minute periods. It can be rather challenging to enforce these rules when multiple kids get a separate hour of time and then participate in their sibling’s hour. So, anticipate this scenario in your plan – possibly keeping the sessions in separate areas or otherwise engaging the siblings. Similarly, movies are often over an hour long and should be used as special sessions, not daily viewing.

Parent Involvement and Example Setting

It is best for young children to always spend screen time jointly with an adult. This ensures the time supports social and language development and prevents screens from being used for babysitting the child. Similarly, parents need to model ideal screen time behavior and should not engage themselves on their screens when they are playing or interacting with their child(ren). These two simple concepts (being involved and modeling ideal behavior) will have a long-term positive impact on your child. 

Screen Free Zones and Times

Part of the family screen time plan should include screen-free zones and times. For example, screens should not be allowed in bed. Set this rule early and follow it strictly. Screen time impacts everyone’s quality of sleep. Keep them out of the bed and maybe even out of the bedroom. Other key times to avoid screens are during meal and snack time. Eating while on a screen sets up another terrible habit that impacts long-term health and social skill development. 

Content

Parents need to help pick age-appropriate content at all stages. There are many general guidelines for this, but the best process is for the parent to review the content or app first. The younger the child, the more important it is for the screen time to involve active learning and engagement. Passive watching should be avoided at least until two years or beyond. Next month’s article will provide more guidance on choosing age-appropriate content.