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Last week was Screen-Free Week, and I’m going to guess that most families did not have a screen-free week.
Screens have become so embedded in daily life that it’s hard to imagine turning them off for a whole week. Besides the fact that many, if not most, children use them for homework, they are also how we get work done, get questions answered, communicate, shop, and relax. For many families, they are also how they calm children down and keep them occupied. How do you go a day without all that — let alone a week?
I agree, that sounds hard. But as a pediatrician I’m worried about the way screens have insidiously worked their way into our lives.
According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), 8 to 18-year-olds spend an average of seven hours a day on screen media. Some of that is homework, but clearly it’s not all homework. Preschoolers spend two to four hours, toddlers two hours, and a third of babies under a year are spending more than an hour watching videos every day.
It’s not all awful, of course. There is certainly high-quality educational content out there. However, children aren’t always watching that high-quality educational content. And even if they were, when you are watching a screen you are generally sedentary, not interacting with others, and relying on the screen to entertain or guide you rather than entertaining or guiding yourself.
This has implications for the health and development of children. Excessive screen time is associated with a higher risk of obesity. It can lead to poorer problem-solving and social skills, and poorer grades. It’s been linked to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other behavioral problems.
That’s why I think families need to be mindful — and build some safeguards into their daily lives and family culture. Here are some suggestions:
1. Rearrange the living room so that the television isn’t the center of attention. This is a tip from the CCFC that I really like. Sure, watching TV together is fun; my family really enjoys our family movie nights. But if all the furniture faces the TV, not only is the natural tendency to turn it on when you sit down, but the message is that it’s what the living room is for — rather than talking to each other, playing a game, or doing anything else but watching TV.
2. Keep TVs out of bedrooms. They just don’t need to be there. Once it’s bedtime, laptops and phones should be out of there too; increasingly, screens are interfering with sleep, especially for teens.
3. Don’t turn on the TV during meals — and put the cell phones aside. Talk to each other instead. Family dinners have all sorts of benefits for children, from increasing their vocabulary to improving their nutrition to building better bonds between children and parents to helping keep teens out of trouble. While you’re at it…
4. Don’t have automatic screen times. So many families have the habit of turning on screens in the morning, or after school, or during dinner prep. Now, it’s not always terrible to do this; having a child watch one age-appropriate program while you do a few chores or just relax yourself can be helpful to many families. But be thoughtful about it. Does this really help? (I found that when our mornings became screen-free, things worked more smoothly, as my children paid better attention.) Is there an alternative, like engaging the child in cooking, or having them get homework done? Make sure it’s the best choice for the moment.
5. Make sure you’ve got supplies for creativity. Like paper, crayons, markers, and paints. Head to a craft store; bring your kids along and invest in some supplies for making things. Buy toys that encourage creativity and imagination, like building blocks, cars, or dollhouses. There should be lots to reach for when you are tempted to reach for a screen. Speaking of times when you are tempted to reach for a screen…
6. Pack books, small toys, playing cards, or paper and crayons whenever you head to anywhere you may get stuck waiting with your child. In my office, it seems like the only thing parents ever have on hand is their phones. There are so very many alternatives; help your child learn that.
7. Head outside. In general, children spend much more time indoors than they used to (we all do). Whether it’s heading to the park, going for a bike ride, walking around the block, or kicking a soccer ball in the back yard, make a concerted effort to make some outdoor time at least every week (every day is even better). It naturally disengages you from screens and literally engages your children with the world.
8. Make a family media plan. The American Academy of Pediatrics has some great interactive tools to help you take stock of and plan how and when your children and family use media.
Because, ultimately, that’s the point: you should be in charge of media, not the other way around.