Note: This story is the second in a series from our annual Health & Wellness special section, first published in the April 1 print edition and sponsored by Franciscan Health.
Carole Sharwarko of the H-F Chronicle talked with Dr. Ira Kumar, board certified pediatrician with Franciscan Health, to learn about the impacts of screen time on young children, and tips for how parents can manage.
H-F Chronicle: What are the negative effects of too much screen time for children?
Dr. Ira Kumar: We have gotten more concerned about too much screen time in recent years, especially since COVID. Too much time spent on screens results in many different health concerns.
For very young children, we see problems with language development, creativity and interaction. Those areas of brain development are all affected by too much screen time.
For kindergarteners, adolescents and middle school children, too much screen time can also cause problems with attention, and ADHD might be a result as well.
Getting to older kids, we see problems with sleep issues, obesity and even eating disorders. Emotional problems, also. It has been said that obsessive compulsive disorder and some aggressive behaviors in teens might be stemming from screen time as well.
What causes these negative effects? Is it the devices or what’s playing on them?
I think it’s both the screen and the content. In the past, when we used to watch TV, we would watch a one-hour program, or maybe a movie for two-and-a-half hours, which would automatically limit the screen time. Now with access to tablets, phones and laptops, there’s more access to screen time.
Kids are watching YouTube a lot, and the way it’s made up, you watch one thing, but it leads to another and another. The content becomes more complicated, more altering the way kids are thinking and what they’re being exposed to.
We are seeing so many sleep issues in kids nowadays. All the blue light emission from screens causes submission of the natural melatonin hormone that helps us sleep. We should turn off screens at least two hours before bed.
What are some screen time ground rules parents can follow?
We go with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation, but even theirs is changing over the years because screens are so much a part of our lives these days. It’s also hard to put into a number of hours, because every family is different.
Children younger than 2 years old should have no screen time at all, except for video chatting with grandparents who live far away or maybe parents who are traveling.
For children older than that, the AAP used to say two hours of screen time max per day. Now we realize that’s not going to be possible in most cases, so we have to apply common sense.
How can parents balance necessities of screen time for schoolwork versus entertainment?
It can be very tough, and entertainment screen time is different. I think the way to look at it is that once schoolwork is done, with (entertainment screen time) parents have to set limits. Talk to the kids and tell them, “We’re going to allow a certain number of hours.” Kids are smart nowadays. Let them be involved in that.
Also, show interest in what the kids are watching. If they’re playing video games, sit with them. That also helps with monitoring content.
Parents can also be good role models in the amount of screen time they have.
Have screen-free time, such as at meal time, and going for a ride in the car. Social gatherings can be tech-free as well.
For younger kids, like 3- and 4-year-olds, sometimes the phone is used for an emotional pacifier while they’re crying. I see that here in my office, and that’s OK, but that should not be the only way to calm them.
When I was younger and we would go to restaurants, we would sometimes have a (placemat) to color with crayons and play Tic-tac-toe. That meant everyone was interacting with one another. The screen time itself is not the problem; not interacting is the problem.
What are warning signs of too much screen time?
Definitely if kids are getting too much into themselves, spending more time alone, going in their room, not interacting. We do see a lot of this happening nowadays. I’m not talking about teenagers here, but younger kids.
We see a depression coming on very early these days, among 9- and 10-year-olds, related to a lot of screen time.
Keep tech out of the bedroom so they’re forced to come down and interact with the family. They can be at the dining table or in the family room.
Start when they are young. When you set limits early, it might be easier when your kid becomes a teen.