The perils of screen time- how much is too much?!

If I had a dollar for every time I supported a family through dealing with sleeping issues, then I’d almost have enough to retire from OT on! The message that I can’t seem to stress enough is in relation to screen time. And it’s not just a sleeping issue; the effects of excessive amounts of time spent in front of the television, on the computer, playing game consoles and using tablets or phones can adversely affect physical, behavioural, emotional and psychological development.

This controversial topic is certainly not a new debate, but perhaps the prevalence of screen technologies and lifestyle changes has led to a general increase in the amount of screen time consumed. There’s no doubting that the use of tablets for children has exploded in the last few years, and by no means am I discounting their educational and communication purposes. Likewise, there’s no dispute over the fact that family lifestyles are relatively faster and busier compared to last decade. There’s increased pressure to get more things achieved in the day, and there’s no doubting the convenience of screen technologies to occupy children. But how much is too much?

Professional opinions are varied, with some recommending that children under 2 have no screen time at all, but the general consensus seems to be no more than 2 hours per day. By the time you add up your child’s favourite television shows, plus the time you let your child play on your phone whilst you have coffee with friends, plus the computer games they play, plus the homework and activities they do on their computer/tablet, plus the time they spend flicking through music and playing apps on their iPods at night, it doesn’t take long to surpass the recommended 2 hour maximum.

A recent Canadian research article highlights developmental consequences such as delayed language development, aggressive behaviour, cigarette smoking (interestingly enough!) and obesity. The link between screen time and obesity is a no-brainer: screen time activities are sedentary. Being sedentary for hours at a time is not only linked to obesity, but other health problems such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. Furthermore, watching television has also been proven to be linked with unhealthy eating habits. Not to mention, that screen time is nowhere near as stimulating for the mind as physical activity or just plain old exploring the environment! Another important physical impact of screen time (and the reason why I chose to write this blog in the first place) is the issue it causes with sleep. A recent study showed that screen time in the 90 minutes leading up to bedtime caused difficulty in falling asleep and reduce overall sleep time in children. The bright light emitted from screens can disrupt the circadian rhythm (i.e.. body clock) and cause increased arousal, which is the last thing you need when trying to get your child to sleep! And there’s more than just a physical impact. According to BBC news, prolonged screen time can lead to reductions in attention span due to its affect on the brain chemical, dopamine and can create ‘screen addiction’.

Limiting your child’s total daily screen time can be challenging. Watching certain television shows may be a part of their routine, or they may associate certain shows with certain activities (such as always watching Play School whilst eating breakfast, or having to go to bed after In The Night Garden has finished). They may get to use their tablets (eg. iPad) as one of their ‘quiet time’ activities in their bedtime routine. Here’s a few suggestions to how you can help to reduce your child’s screen time:

  • Remove all sources of screen time from your child’s bedroom, including (but not limited to) televisions and computers. The bedroom should be associated purely with sleeping (this also includes avoiding using the bedroom as a place where children are sent for punishment).
  • Turn all screens off whilst eating, this includes snacks as well as mealtimes.
  • Turn off screens whilst getting ready in the morning.
  • For every minute in front of the screen, try and do a minute of physical activity.
  • Get your children to ‘earn’ screen time minutes through a reward system.
 
For more ideas on how to limit screen time, visit the Raising Children Network or speak to an OT at Occupational Therapy For Children

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