Healthy together screen time

Child Health | 8 months ago

Healthy Together: Less Screen Time Is Good for Your Child's Health

Experts recommend monitoring electronics for children throughout adolescence, as extended screen time can affect cognitive development, social interaction and sleep patterns. Dr. Crystal Bullard, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Atrium Health, explains the benefits of limiting recreational screen time.

In a world of handheld devices, a 24/7 news cycle and smart technology, information and instant communication are at our children's fingertips before they are even a year old. While we have more learning tools and resources now than ever before, experts, including Crystal R. Bullard, MD, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry at Atrium Health, recommend limiting recreational screen time – including TV, computer, video games, tablets and smart phones – to less than 2 hours a day and encouraging more at-home activities with face-to-face interaction.

"Face-to-face interaction is important in child development," says Dr. Bullard. "It enhances the learning process and social engagement as well as encourages brain development."

While high-quality programming can have educational value for children starting at 18 months, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends families implement a family media plan to balance media use with other healthy behaviors.

Screen Time Substitutions

Dr. Bullard recommends families restrict electronic usage around certain times, such as dinner time or on the car ride to and from school, in order to give families an opportunity to spend time together. Engaging in family activities – like board games, an at-home scavenger hunt or crafts – can help stimulate the brain and encourage face-to-face connections.

"Even though kids want their electronics and want to be on social media all the time, they ultimately end up missing attention from their parents and families, " says Dr. Bullard. "It's also imperative for parents to be role models when establishing rules around social media usage."

In addition to family communication, Dr. Bullard emphasizes the importance of peer-to-peer interaction to encourage social engagement, which means limiting communication solely with online friends.

"Children who are more introverted, have anxiety or difficulty socially engaging may find it easier to socialize through social media and rely on online or gaming friends rather than socialization with peers and family members," says Dr. Bullard. "It's important for parents to keep kids involved in activities such as sports and clubs where they interact with peers."

Volunteering, joining a sports team or attending youth classes at a community center are engaging alternatives to avoid replacing physical activity and brain-stimulating activities with electronics – especially during the cold, winter months.

Better Sleep, Reduced Fatigue

Studies have shown screen time before bed can disrupt healthy sleep habits and nutrition in children, leading to higher body mass indexes (BMIs). More screen time could contribute to weight gain, as a consequence of increased sedentary behavior or as a consequence of snacking and exposure to food advertisements.

"Our brains respond to light, and when more light enters our pupils before bed, the brain delays the release of melatonin," says Dr. Bullard. "Whereas when darkness enters the pupils, melatonin is released which helps us fall asleep."

Dr. Bullard recommends children turn screens off about 1 hour before bedtime as lack of sleep can disrupt focus and concentration. It can even affect children psychologically and lead to irritability, mood swings and agitation.

In addition to limiting screen time before bed, Dr. Bullard says kids should be given intervals or breaks when utilizing electronics, as extended use can lead to eye fatigue and dry eyes. The American Optometric Association recommends children look away from screens every 20 minutes.

"We live in a time where even 6-month-old babies are exposed to blue light from electronics," says Dr. Bullard. "Developing a cell phone contract with your child or teenager in which they establish rules surrounding cell phone usage, such as when it will be turned off, can be helpful to set standards before the child is given a cell phone."

By eating more fruits and vegetables, being physically active for at least one hour per day, limiting recreational screen time, and avoiding sugary drinks, your family can join the 5210 League and make the pledge to be healthy together. Learn more about the 5210 League.