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Children and the Risks of Screen Time

It's hard to go anywhere in this world without looking at a screen. As adults, we can intuitively sense that limiting screen time is a good idea. After all, most of us spend our days in front of computers at work, and we all know how taxing this can be.

As children's brains develop, they are learning many vital skills to succeed in this world. Researchers have found connections between brain development and amounts and types of screen time. It's critical that we understand what we can do to keep things in check.

In this series of posts, we will cover how to know how much time is reasonable and several ways that you can help your child develop healthy screen habits.


How Much Time Do Kids Spend Looking at Screens?

The amount of time children spend on screens depends on age. Here's a breakdown of how much screen time kids are getting today using data provided by the CDC and New York-Presbyterian:

How much of this time is spent watching television?

This graph shows that most of children's screen time comes from watching television.

Interestingly, the 11-14 age bracket has the most screen time of all the groups. It's probable that older teenagers spend less time in front of screens because they have more options, start driving, and begin to build their own social lives. Yet they still get several hours of screen time during the day.

There are several health risks that have been linked to increased screen time, including:

Brain Development

  • Screens are not turning our brains to "mush," but there is some evidence that they can interfere with your child's brain development. For example, this study found that children with more than two hours per day on screens scored lower on language and thinking tests. The same study also found that kids who spend more than seven hours per day on a screen experienced a thinning of the brain's cortex, which is the part that is responsible for critical thinking and reasoning.

  • Another study found that kids who spent more than two hours per day in front of a screen were 7.7 times more likely to meet the criteria for an attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) diagnosis. To be clear, the link between screen time and ADHD remains weak, and most still believe genes play the most prominent role. However, studies like these do suggest that limiting screen time can be positive for your kids.

Weight Gain and Obesity

  • It's not the screens themselves that can produce this result. Instead, it's what kids are doing while they are on screens – nothing – that is the issue. Kids should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, and if spending time in front of screens is preventing this from happening, something does need to change.

Inappropriate Content

  • If a kid is spending 5-9 hours per day, are you sitting with them for that whole time to see what they are watching/doing? We're guessing probably not. With so much time to explore content, it's unfortunately fairly easy for children to find content that is inappropriate or dangerous for them.

  • Unattended, a child or teenager may decide to research a topic using inaccurate or unreliable sources, which can negatively shape their views and opinions.

  • Excessive exposure to advertising can also give a false sense of inferiority in body image or material belongings. You can help by teaching your child how to recognize the strategies used in advertisements, and how to avoid their lure. This can even become an opportunity to learn critical thinking skills and effective marketing.

Eye Strain, Headaches, and Poor Sleep

  • Too much time in front of a screen can make your eyes hurt and strain to see longer. Also, many people report getting a headache after spending a long time in front of a screen. Children who are absorbed in what they are doing on their screens are likely experiencing these things, but they often won't say anything, and this can cause problems to get worse.

  • The sounds and lights of TVs and electronics at bedtime make an environment where it is harder to get to and stay asleep. The blue light emitted from modern screens can mess with our brains. In essence, it confuses it into thinking that it's still daylight, and this can disrupt the circadian rhythm and lead to sleep problems. The best thing to do is to make sure all screens are off at least one hour before bed and that kids don't have access to a screen when they are alone in their rooms.

Challenges with School and Socializing

  • Less quality and time sleeping, and more distraction from screens can make it harder to perform well in school. Additionally, consider the amount of screen time that may already be required for school as a factor in your child's total screen time for a day.

  • It's important that kids find ways to socialize in person. While communicating online is good, it's missing many "real" communication elements, such as body language, tone, mood, etc.

In our upcoming posts in this series, we will talk about how to access the benefits of screen time while mitigating the negative impacts and how to set helpful limits for children.


*This blog post is the first in a series of posts adapted with permission from the original author, Helen Griffin. Content originally published on Cable Comparisons Blog.


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