If you have a young child, your instincts probably tell you that allowing him or her to sit in front of the television for hours on end is a bad idea. Likewise, most parents are probably aware that prolonged use of electronic devices like tablets, laptops, hand-held video games and smart phones isn’t particularly good for kids. But you might not know that limiting kids’ screen time isn’t just about encouraging them to be more physically active.
It’s true that the ubiquity of internet appliances encourages sedentary habits that can in turn lead to obesity and other health problems in people of all ages. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reasons that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that “entertainment media” be avoided entirely for infants and children under the age of two, and limited to two or less hours each day for other kids.
The beginning of a child’s life is a crucial time for his or her social development, when they are learning the communication skills they need to succeed in both school and life. They can’t acquire these skills by passively sitting in front of the TV or by playing a video game on a tablet. In fact, the list of potential effects from kids spending excessive time in front of a TV or computer screen ranges from language delays to shorter attention spans, sleeping and weight problems, and a need to constantly be entertained rather than exploring and discovering things on their own through “self-directed” play.
In turn, kids can wind up with a deficit of critical thinking skills, as well as a skewed idea about how the world works and their own place within it. Playing certain video games or watching violent TV programs can cause a child to become desensitized to the violence and develop aggressive behaviors. It’s also true that spending lots of time in front of the screen as a child can easily become an ingrained habit that lasts a lifetime. With some teens now spending upwards of nine hours a day online and texting, it’s easy to see why this might be viewed as a problem from a medical perspective.
Not all multimedia is created equal
Of course, tablets and laptops are increasingly used by kids throughout the school day, and there is no shortage of educational apps and TV programming that genuinely helps children learn. As the AAP notes, the content of the material your child absorbs while using an electronic device is far more important than the platform itself. That said, it’s worth knowing that children often get more out of educational programs when a parent watches with them.
In our family medical practice, we counsel parents with preschool-aged children to limit their kids’ screen time to no more than 1-2 hours per day, regardless of the type of device or programming. Given how important one-on-one interaction is for early childhood development, we’re also happy to suggest alternative activities that can stimulate young brains while creating fun family time.
For example, cooking dinner with your kids can help them learn about nutrition, planning and cooperation, while reading a book with a child is great for building language skills. Other options include active games such as building a fort or creating a new dance move, both of which stimulate kids’ imagination while providing an outlet for their considerable energy. Family game night is another outstanding substitute for time spent in front of the computer. Whatever you choose, you’ll be cultivating the parent-child bonding process while making memories to last a lifetime.
- Amit Desai, MD
Florida Hospital Health Park Lake Nona | Primary Care
HealthParkLakeNona.com | 407-930-7801