Need to revisit screen time? – Harvard Health Blog

Almost all of us spend too much time in front of a screen these days. Many, if not most, of us spend most of our days on one – including, unfortunately, our children.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course. When the pandemic started a year ago, we had no way of knowing it would last that long. Suddenly, the school became distant, the daycare ended. Many parents started working remotely, and those who stayed at work had less supervision at home. At the same time, sports, play dates and other off-screen activities have literally disappeared. We naturally went into survival mode and turned on the screens. We let our children spend more hours than before on entertainment media, thinking it won’t be for long. We turned a blind eye to violent online gaming, believing that at least our kids were interacting with their friends.

But a year later, we’re still stuck in our homes – and our kids are more and more glued to their screens.

Life on the screen: behavioral and learning changes

It’s not good for them. Besides the simple fact that screen time is sedentary time, too much screen time has behavioral and learning effects that can change our children. The rapid stimulation of most children’s activities on entertainment media makes slower activities like playing with toys, painting a picture, or looking at a book less appealing. Not only that, but it can interfere with the way children learn and practice executive function skills, such as delayed gratification, troubleshooting, collaboration, and navigating life challenges. It also gives them less chance to use their imaginations and be creative. It can affect their mood, making them anxious or depressed.

There is the additional problem that it is difficult to know what children are doing on screens; many young children explore violent games or adult social media platforms, and their parents don’t even realize it.

Steps Parents Can Take Around Screen Time

We have at least a few months left from the pandemic – too long to claim this screen time issue is temporary. We also have to face the reality that the habits our children are learning might not stop once the pandemic subsides. 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 kids – and you – are doing. In fact, count the hours and research what exactly your kids are doing online (have them show you). What you will discover may surprise you; we all like to think things are better than they are. We are human. But you can’t make changes until you know what you’re dealing with.

Draw lines in the sand. Screens don’t always have to be on and some activities just aren’t correct. It’s time to adopt some house rules if you don’t already have them. For example:

  • Children should not participate in online activities or games that are inappropriate for their age. This can include violent video games. Think long and hard about what you want your child to do. Speak to your pediatrician if you have any questions.
  • Time spent in front of a screen shouldn’t interfere with sleep. Devices should be charged elsewhere than in the bedroom (or in Do Not Disturb mode for teens).
  • Screen time shouldn’t interfere with social interactions. Have screen-less areas, like family meals or other family time. (Yes, that also means parents.)
  • Screen time shouldn’t interfere with homework. It is complicated by homework involving screens, but many children are distracted by social media and online games.

Think about alternatives to screens as a family. At the start of the pandemic, when we thought it would be quick, we all took shortcuts and were a little lazy to find alternatives. Now that we know it’s not fast, we need to re-evaluate.

Talk about it as a family. Be clear that screen time needs to be reduced, this is not the discussion – the discussion is about what you could do instead. For example:

  • Board games and toys: take them out, create a space to play. We forget how much fun it can be.
  • To do things! Build with blocks, make a city with boxes. Boxes that held bottles of wine or liquor can make tall apartment buildings if placed on their side – you can cut out doors and windows and decorate each compartment. Draw, paint or build with clay. Knitting and crochet can be fun and is easy to learn with online tutorials.
  • Read books with actual pages. Graphic novels and comics matter.
  • Play instruments. Virtual lessons – and free online tutorials – are available.
  • Bake and bake. Try new recipes, make old favorites. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

Part of that involves adult time as well, depending on your child’s age – and that’s not always easy these days. Try to offer activities that do not require the active participation of an adult. When it comes to activities that require 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 need to go through a few versions as you work to disengage your family from screens. But it’s good; the goal is to start, to adopt healthy habits that will serve your children well for the rest of their lives.

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Jothi Venkat

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