Summer break and reducing excessive screen time

5 min

by Nadine Penny

As we approach the end of the school year and enter summer break mode, it’s a good time to look at how our children spend their “vacation” time. Today’s technology has changed our down-time preferences as well as that of our children, and although we wouldn’t want to live without our screens, too much screen time can have unintended and detrimental consequences. Since today’s parents have no precedence in parenting around the use of technology, it’s a good time to think about summer structure around screen time.

Today, we’ve transitioned from a question of economic disparity between kids who had access to screens and those who did not to a concern about what constitutes excessive screen usage and what does not. The American Academy of Pediatrics weighs in at allowing no more than one to two hours screen time per day — and none at all for kids under two.

Reality Check

According to two national surveys of kids age 12 to 15 compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in the July 2014 issue of NCHS Data Brief:

* 38 percent of children under the age of 2 used a mobile device for media in 2013

* 75 percent of teens spend at least two hours a day watching TV and using a computer

* 15 percent of kids watch TV for more than four hours each day

* 12 percent of kids use their computers for more than four hours a day

These results did not include cell phone use, which would likely have compounded these statistics, as the Connected Kid Report illustrates. Childwise looked at all screen use of 2000 British kids from age 5 to 16 and found that they engaged with a TV, games console, computer or mobile for a whopping average of 6.5 hours a day.

From a purely physical perspective, the effect on kids keeps them sedentary and that can be detrimental to a child’s body and health. A 2013 research study of 91 teens from ages 13 to 15 and their media use by Boston Children’s Hospital concurs. Researchers found that 14-year-old boys who reported paying the most attention to what was showing on TV weighed 14.2 pounds more than boys who reported paying the least attention. For girls, the difference was 13.5 pounds. And in another study, researchers found that Australian teen boys who exceeded two hours of screen time per day were twice as likely to have abnormal levels of insulin and homeostatic model assessment of insulin resistances compared to their peers, which implies an increased risk of insulin resistance. Basically, a three-hour plus TV diet that trends into adulthood clearly has ramifications for adult obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Cognitively, too much screen time has been shown to have a harmful effect on our children’s minds. Dopamine, the chemical that contributes to learning and concentration, is released when we see something interesting or different. As children watch screens for long periods of time, their brains become desensitized to the effects of normal levels of dopamine which make it harder to concentrate and focus on non-screen-based stimuli.

A study of 2,623 children confirms this notion in that those who watched television at ages 1 and 3 years revealed a significantly increased risk of developing attentional problems by the time they were age 7. For every hour of television watched by a child each day, there was a 9 percent increase in subsequent attentional problems consistent with a diagnosis of ADHD.

In other studies of older kids, Swing et al concluded, “Viewing television and playing video games each are associated with increased subsequent attention problems in childhood…late adolescence and early adulthood….”

You may recall that dopamine is the neurochemical involved in most addictions, which is why professionals who work with children are concerned that over time we may meet a generation of adolescents who have developed a dependency on screens — and who, like any addict, will experience withdrawal symptoms if they have to switch the screens off.

Dr. Robert Pressman, research director of the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology and lead researcher of The Learning Habit Study, examined family routines in 46,000 U.S. homes of children in grades K-12. The study found that after just 45 minutes of screen time, children’s grades, sleep, social skills and emotional balance start to decline. For example, kids took 20 times longer to fall asleep than children with limited media/screen use. Most interestingly, the researchers found that media/screen usage had a clear, detrimental effect on kids’ Grit scores — their willingness to persevere in the face of difficulty. And that affects success. “Grit,” according to Dr. Melissa Nemon, the lead statistician for the Learning Habit, is “the character trait most closely linked to academic achievement.”

Parents who learned how to work from watching their parents, have no precedent in how to regulate their children’s screen time.

So, the following tips may give parents ideas in how to handle screen time:

* Begin by assessing your own screen usage. Consider how often you find yourself posting to Facebook or checking for text messages, or fiddling with Instagram as a way to relax. If, outside of work, you are using screens for more than two hours a day, limit your own screen usage — especially when your kids are around — and demonstrate good habits, letting your parenting spirit shine through.

* Remove those TVs and computers from your kids’ bedrooms and limit their screen time to no more than 90 minutes of recreational use per day! Although in the short-term screens keep kids quiet and occupied, the long-term benefits of just saying “No” frequently and often will result in better school performance, better concentration, better sleep and that’s good for every kids’ spirits!

* Keep the TV or tablet use for long journeys rather than those short trips to school or the store. Encourage kids to read, listen to music or chat about their day and use those short car trips to interact and ensure kids stay present, open and connected — heart, mind and soul.

* Don’t get pressured into buying your tween that iPhone6 or creating a Facebook or Instagram account for them. By holding tweens off of cell phones, Facebook or from other social media during these earlier years, you’ll save money (phones are costly) and your kid will be a little more mature and better able to handle their internet use (including what they post online and how to respond to negative posters) when you finally give them the green light to go online when they’re in high school.

Our world is dominated by technology and it’s not likely to reverse itself. Our children are comfortable with and expert at using technology. As with most things in life, too much of a good thing can have a detrimental side.

So, as we approach our summer “vacation” time, let’s have some pre-summer discussions and planning around screen time and media use. We may be surprised at the differences we find in our children and perhaps ourselves — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, as we tune in and switch off.


Connected Kids

Face Time vs. Screen Time

Internet Addiction: The New Mental Disorder

Teen Internet Addiction

Internet and Teenagers’ Brains

Gray Matters and Screen Time

Wired Kids and their Brains

Put Down that Smartphone

How Young is Too Young

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