meaningful screen time balancing online and offline

Meaningful screen time: balancing online and offline time for your children’s health

Children and teens have access to more kinds of electronic media than ever before, which makes excessive screen time the number one barrier to a healthy lifestyle in children. While some screen time can add to a child’s educational and developmental experiences, more screen time has been shown to translate into an increased risk of childhood obesity, diminished problem-solving abilities, attention deficit, issues of intimacy, behavioural problems, disrupted sleep cycles, and addictions.

The statistics may surprise you:

  • The average Canadian child watches nearly 14 hours of TV each week
  • The average 8-18 year old spends 10 hours 45 minutes a day using digital devices
  • Internet use is now 100% among 12-24 year olds, with 25% of time spent interacting on social media.
  • By high school graduation, the average teen will have spent more time watching TV than in the classroom

Increased risk of childhood obesity

More screen time typically translates into decreased physical fitness, as it takes away from play and exercise activities. It is also associated with an increased intake of high fat, high energy snack foods. Research shows that the more time children spend watching TV, the more they are influenced by it. The average child sees over 20,000 commercials each year, of which 60% promote sugared cereals, candy, fatty foods and toys.

Influence on psychosocial development

Studies show that screen time profoundly affects children’s problem-solving abilities, working memory, and may even lead to attention deficit problems. Digital technology also favours superficial contact over emotional and psychological intimacy. The heaviest media users reported the following psychosocial effects: boredom or sadness, increased behavioural problems, unhappiness at school and home, lower grades, sleep problems, and addictions.

Information Overload

An epidemic of attention problems parallels the barrage of information that children have been exposed to. Our brains process information by tuning out 95-98% of sensory input. Studies also show that we need time away from stimulation to integrate the information we receive. Our attention mechanisms, especially when immature, are simply not built to handle this amount of information. Such overload is known to cause problems with concentration, memory, retrieval of information, and distraction.

The Social Disconnect

It is important to acknowledge that some video games may help the development of fine motor skills and coordination. However, these isolated improvements are not unique to video games, and there is no evidence of an increase in brainpower; or brain or psychological maturation. There are many concerns associated with video game use including: disrupted sleep cycles, inactivity, asocial behaviour, and violence. Children fail to pursue proximity with their family, and the very activity of playing video games spoils the desire for family connection.

We cannot eliminate technology from children’s lives, nor should we. But we can help our children to make positive use of digital tools. The goal is to incorporate technology into our lives in a meaningful way that allows us to have a healthy balance of online and off-line time. Parents should guide children towards activities that help them learn, stimulate their interests, and express their creativity.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Digital time comes after quality family time
  • Create digital-free zones in your home and schedule
  • Focus on sports, hobbies, creative and outdoor play
  • No televisions, computers or other digital devices in bedrooms
  • Offer non-digital formats such as books, board games, and magazines
  • Mealtimes, family times, evenings and bedtimes are the most important to keep free of digital activities
  • Consider all electronic media when setting time limits for your family – television, movies, internet usage (including social media), video games, gaming devices and cell phones

Help kids develop self-control through a prioritized schedule:

  1. Homework, hobbies, sports and good learning games
  2. Family time
  3. Downtime for free play, introspection and the development of self-awareness

Set clear rules for technology use:

  1. No screen-based activities for children under 2
  2. Limit screen time to less than 2 hrs per day for children older than 4
  3. Be specific with the rules and set them early. For games and websites, you may need to set a timer; for TV, just say “one show.”
  4. Discuss clear consequences for violating those rules.
  5. Consider signing a contract or a family media pledge

For more information or guidance on screen time restrictions, please speak with your child’s Copeman Kids healthcare team.