Too much screen time can affect children’s health, sleep patterns, relationships, and more. Most children watch more television than parents realize. Statistics show that kids in the U.S. watch 3-4 hours daily. If you imagine your child sitting in front of the TV for 4 straight hours, it seems easy to curtail. But if you count the 20 minutes in the morning, the hour or so after school, and the movie before bed, well, it sneaks up on us. Of course, television is often not the only screen time children are exposed to.
Want to get real about how much TV/screen time we’re talking about? Write down the times your child watches TV regularly over the course of a week. Now add other screen time like computers and hand-held electronic devices. Then go back and fill in the times he or she sometimes turns it on: it’s too hot, you’re busy, whatever. That’s probably the more accurate number. Whether you are above or below the average, the impact is more than just a number.
The brain, activity, and commonsense drain
Increased television time has been linked to unhealthy eating and a decrease in activity. Television watching typically occurs in the morning, after camp or school, while parents are preparing for meals and naps, and on weekends. These are times when children might be engaged in active or imaginative play.
Television also encourages unhealthy eating in two ways. First, while preoccupied with television, people are more likely to eat beyond what they need. Worse, children are influenced by the constant advertisements for “junk foods.”
TV and other screen time are also likely to have a negative impact on behavior and performance. Children who watch a lot of TV may have a harder time focusing and have shorter attention spans. TV has been linked to language delays in very young children, poor self-regulation and executive function in preschoolers, and sleep disturbances in children of all ages.
Then there’s the issue of what children may be missing. Screen time replaces activities that enhance brain development and learning, help with self-control and mood, and build social skills and relationships.
Children learn by imitation. Instead of pretend play in the kitchen or exploring outside, they may learn, and then “try out,” the behaviors they see on TV. Imitating the actions and stories that they see on programs may be harmful, inappropriate, and it may replace their own play ideas.
Tuning back into family
Even with all of the problems TV can cause for children, the worst may be what it does for families, whose strength is in relationships. TV and other screen devices replace conversation and relaxed time together. Try some of these back-to-basics ideas:
• Family time. Get into some building blocks or Legos together, playing games or just talk about your days.
• Interaction with friends. Have friends over or go outside and visit with neighbors. A lot of important relationship skills are practiced as children grow.
• Sports and active play. Whether they join a sports team or just go outside with a basketball, help your child find a fun way to get some exercise every day. Not into sports? Go walk around the park and take a break on the swings.
• Reading and imaginative play. Encourage children to play with their “stuff.” Many children have toys in their rooms that go ignored when they are “plugged in.”
• Sensory play. Fill the tub or a small pool and add some toys. When children get involved in water play, playdough, bubble making, or other sensory activities, they improve their mood and relax.