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Child & Teen Health
Need to revisit screen time?
- By Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
Just about every single one of us is spending too much time in front of a screen these days. Many, if not most, of us are spending most of our days on one — including, unfortunately, our children.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course. When the pandemic began a year ago, we had no way of knowing it would last so long. Suddenly, school became remote, daycare ended. Many parents started working remotely, and those who remained in the workplace had less oversight at home. At the same time sports, playdates, and other non-screen activities literally disappeared. We naturally went into survival mode and turned on the screens. We let our kids spend hours more than they used to on entertainment media, figuring that it wouldn’t be for long. We turned a blind eye to the violent online games, figuring that at least our children were interacting with their friends.
But a year later we are still stuck in our homes — and our kids are increasingly stuck to their screens.
Life on screen: Changes in behavior and learning
This isn’t good for them. Besides the simple fact that screen time is sedentary time, too much time in front of a screen has effects on behavior and learning that can change our children. The rapid-fire stimulation of much of what children engage with on entertainment media makes slower-paced activities like playing with toys, painting a picture, or looking at a book less appealing. Not only that, but it can interfere with how children learn and practice executive function skills, like delayed gratification, troubleshooting, collaborating, and otherwise navigating life’s challenges. It also gives them fewer chances to use their imagination and be creative. It can affect their mood, making them anxious or depressed.
There is the additional problem that it’s hard to know what children are doing on screens; many young children are exploring violent games or social media platforms meant for adults, and their parents don’t even realize it.
Steps parents can take around screen time
We have at least a few months left of the pandemic — too long to pretend that this screen time problem is temporary. We also have to face the reality that the habits our children are learning might not stop once the pandemic fades. It’s time to make some changes — and build some new habits.
So what can we do?
Take stock of the problem. Take an honest look at what your children — and you — are doing. Actually count up the hours, and do some research into what exactly your children are doing online (have them show you). What you find out may surprise you; we all like to think that things are better than they are. We’re human. But you can’t make changes until you know what you are dealing with.
Draw some lines in the sand. The screens do not always have to be on, and some activities just aren’t okay. It’s time for some house rules if you don’t have them already. For example:
- Children should not be engaged in online activities or games that aren’t age-appropriate. This may include violent video games. Think long and hard about what you want your child to do. Talk to your pediatrician if you have questions.
- Screen time should not be getting in the way of sleep. Devices should be charged somewhere besides the bedroom (or on do not disturb mode for teens).
- Screen time shouldn’t be getting in the way of social interaction. Have screen-free zones, like family meals or other family time. (Yes, that means parents too.)
- Screen time shouldn’t get in the way of homework. This is complicated by homework involving screens, but many kids are getting distracted by social media and online gaming.
Think as a family about alternatives to screens. At the beginning of the pandemic, when we thought it would be quick, we all cut corners and were a bit lazy about coming up with alternatives. Now that we know it’s not quick, we need to reassess.
Talk about it as a family. Be clear that screen time has to get cut, that’s not the discussion — the discussion is about what you might do instead. For example:
- Board games and toys: get them out, make a space to play. We forget how fun it can be.
- Make things! Build with blocks, make a city out of boxes. Boxes that held bottles of wine or liquor can make great apartment buildings if put on their side — you can cut doors and windows and decorate each compartment. Draw, paint, or build with clay. Knitting and crocheting can be fun, and are easy to learn with online tutorials.
- Read books with actual pages. Graphic novels and comic books count.
- Play instruments. Virtual lessons — and free online tutorials — are available.
- Cook and bake. Try out new recipes, make old favorites. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
Some of this does involve adult time too, depending on the age of your child — and that’s not always easy these days. Try to come up with some activities that don’t require an adult to be actively involved. As for activities that do need adults, think of it as an investment in your child’s well-being — and a chance for you to unplug and relax too.
Make a family media plan. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a great tool that you can use. You may have to go through a few versions as you work on disengaging your family from screens. But that’s fine; the point is to begin, to lean into healthy habits that will serve your children well for their rest of their lives.
Follow me on Twitter @drClaire
About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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Simple Changes, Big Rewards: A practical, easy guide for healthy, happy living
All of us probably know some areas where we could boost our health and happiness — perhaps by exercising more, eating healthier, learning stress management techniques, or nipping a bad habit in the bud — but making a change can be daunting. It doesn’t have to be, though. This Special Health Report, Simple Changes, Big Rewards: A practical, easy guide for healthy, happy living, will show you how to incorporate simple changes into your life that can reap big rewards.
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