Screen Time: How Much Is Too Much?

The answer is, it depends.

In New Jersey, nearly every tween and teenager has access to a tablet or has their own smart phone and nearly every infant has held a digital device or swiped through photos by their first birthday. While that might sound alarming, after a year like 2020, it’s not that surprising.

In fact, the use of digital devices and their relationship-based apps have actually become and continue to be a priceless lifeline to family members affected by the pandemic. Kids who have friends, parents, or grandparents who are locked up in self quarantine somewhere or who are still stuck at home every weekend because every type of family celebration is still being cancelled- are mercifully able to hop on Facetime and Zoom to connect as often as they want to get some much needed visual air hugs, kisses, and high-fives. The utilization of screens at home has also allowed schools to offer some semblance of education via daily virtual classes while executive orders keep periodically pulling the plug on traditional in-person learning. While far from a perfect solution or substitution for face to face enlightenment, there’s no doubt that virtual learning will have a meaningful impact on how our youth will experience pre-school through college from this point forward.

However, on the flip side of the increased screen time coin, an alarming number of children have suffered greatly when it comes to eye trauma, deterioration of sleep quality, obesity, and loss of creativity.

Eye trauma: Dr. Albert Khouri, Ophthalmologist and Director of Glaucoma Service at Rutgers Medical School says, “The muscle in the eye, the ciliary muscle, works extra hard to focus on images the closer they are to the face. Everything is at arm’s length, whether it’s the T.V., iPad, or computer screen, and there’s evidence to suggest this close-up world we live in leads to progressive myopia, or nearsightedness.”

Obesity: In a 2017 study by The Institute of Social Media and Child Development, the evidence to date confirms that “screen media exposure leads to obesity in children and adolescents via three main mechanisms: increased eating while using screens, leading to greater calorie intake; seeing advertising for high-calorie, low-nutrition foods and beverages that alters children’s preferences, purchase requests, and eating habits; and disrupting sleep.”

Deterioration of Sleep Quality: Assistant Professor and Laboratory Director at the Rutgers Sleep Lab, Andrea Spaeth PhD, says, “Screens emit blue light, which disrupts the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our body’s sleep-wake cycle. Exposure to blue light from screens after it is dark outside may affect a child’s ability fall asleep and stay asleep.”

Loss of Creativity: Pediatrician and Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Michael Rich, says “The growing human brain is constantly building neural connections while pruning away less-used ones, and digital media use plays an active role in that process. Much of what happens on screen provides “impoverished” stimulation of the developing brain compared to reality, he says. Children need a diverse menu of online and offline experiences, including the chance to let their minds wander. Boredom is the space in which creativity and imagination happen.”

So, is there happy medium or a way to balance the inevitable need your children will have to utilize screens on a daily basis with the potential danger of becoming a zoned-out digital zombie who barely says a word to you at the dinner table or around the house because they are consumed by their devices?

Yes. But, it is definitely easier said than done.

Here are 4 things you can do help manage your child’s screen time at home:

1) Establish Time Limits: Your children can earn 30 minutes of screen time if all of their homework is done, all household chores have been completed, and they’ve been physically active for at least 1 hour. *All social media use and texting with friends must end at least 1-2 hours before bed time so it does not interfere with their quality of sleep. If they ask “what am I supposed to do with all that time before I go to bed?” you can introduce them to a good book, play a board game, organize a family activity that benefits someone in need or a good cause, encourage them to draw a picture, start a journal, think of a business they might want own someday, or write a song. Essentially, empower them to do something more productive and creative.

2) Set a Good Example: Don’t expect your children to put their devices away during dinner if you are on your device during dinner. Keep all devices away from the dinner table. Enjoy each other’s company and conversation during meals instead of staring down at your screens in silence. Be present and be an active listener. You can ask simple questions like, “What was your favorite part of the day?”, “What was the toughest part of your day and how did you deal with it?”, and “What is something you are grateful for?”. You might be surprised at some of the answers and should welcome the opportunity to start an impactful dialogue.

3) Take a Break: When your children have a lot of school work to complete online and need to be in front of a screen for extended periods of time, encourage them to get up and stretch, do some form of cardiovascular movement, and even take a quick walk around the house or the block every 30 – 45 minutes. If you are home with them at the time, accompany them whenever possible. You’ll both benefit from all of the positive physiological reactions you’ll get from the intentional movement, fresh air, and rush of endorphins. In addition, consider investing in an adjustable stand-up desk to enjoy notable benefits like increased productivity, reduced back pain, and lowering the risk of weight gain.

4) Avoid Screen Eating: This is another “rule” that will benefit you as much as your children. It might be fun to enjoy a big bowl of popcorn or your favorite candy or chips while watching a good movie, television show, or sporting event, but, what isn’t fun is the amount of unnecessary calories you’re putting into your body by mindlessly eating something when you’re not even hungry. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with an enjoying an occasional treat and life is way too short to obsess over food. It’s also impossible to avoid all foods at all times that contain too much sugar. So, here’s the deal: if your family regularly practices healthy lifestyle habits so that your nutrition, fitness, and sleep levels are all on point, special treats and various forms of entertainment can certainly be enjoyed in moderation.

As always, being flexible and able to adapt quickly are the keys to dealing with whatever life throws your way. The same goes for screen time and living in a digital world that is unquestionably dominated by social media. If you can learn to utilize all of the benefits that can come from using technology and embrace the limitless possibilities that thoughtful and deliberate screen time can provide instead of resenting it and succumbing to all of its pitfalls, you and your family can literally have the best of both worlds.

-Dr. Jill 🙂