Finding the Balance Between On and Off Screen Time

June 9, 2019
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The technological advances in recent years have been stunning; you cannot look far without seeing some kind of screen or technological device that peaks interest or excitement. The evolution of cell-phones from tiny bricks in our pockets to handheld laptops at our fingertips has made it difficult to tear ourselves away from screens. Just as adults are becoming influenced by the availability of technology and screen time, children are just as (if not more) impacted by screen time. With screens comes entertainment as well as education, and the constant availability of interesting, pleasurable things to do on their devices has left researchers wondering how this could be impacting children’s brain development and the long-term effects excessive use might cause. In addition to children, researchers have also studied the impact of how screen time affects adults as well and the negative consequences that arise from our pretty constant use.

Studies have begun to look at the long-term consequences of screen time on child development and found that there are some correlations between excessive use (usually around 7 hours a day of use is considered excessive for children) and lower scores on developmental milestone assessments, language and thinking tests, lower psychological well-being, concentration, problem solving, and social skills. While the data is mixed on these areas and there has not been a clear, confirmed link to these struggles, professional health organizations like the American Pediatric Association and the World Health Organization have provided recommendations for amount of time per age that would be recommended for healthy screen time use. These numbers generally indicate no screen time for children under 18 months old, and no more than 1 hour per day for children 2-5 years old.

For older children and adults, the guidelines become less stringent and more flexible; they usually don’t recommend a certain amount of time, but rather suggest having boundaries and limitations on screen time, usually based on amount of time per session and whether or not the current amount of screen time is affecting parts of their lives. For example, if screen time seems to be affecting an older child or adult’s ability to get good sleep, if it impacts productivity, or if it is impacting their ability to socialize and maintain relationships with other people, the time using screens may need to be limited. Other warning signs that a person is engaging in too much screen time involves physical discomfort, including headaches, eye strains, back or neck problems, carpal tunnel or other “excessive use” physical problems.

If you or your child is experiencing any of these symptoms or your life is otherwise affected by screen time use, here are some strategies for decreasing the time and having better boundaries with your screens:

  • Develop Boundaries with Screen Time
    • It can be helpful to have certain places and times where screens and technology can be used and other places where it cannot. For example, using screens in the living room may be an acceptable place, but not in bedrooms or during dinner when you are with family.
    • Timing is also a super important aspect to developing boundaries around screen time. Setting scheduled time to use screens can help to minimize overuse and can help you and your family stick to a healthy sleep routine as well.
  • Take Breaks and Move Your Body
    • Our bodies were not meant to be sitting in front of screens all day, and as a result, constant sedentary behavior can have an impact on a person’s overall health and wellness. It is important to take breaks to move around, stretch, and engage your body in physical activity to decrease the negative impact that can result from time in front of screens and technology.
  • Prioritize Non-Screen Activities
    • Research has shown the importance of physical activity and sleep for children and adults, and experts in child development explain that it is crucial for children, especially young children (5 years and younger) to engage in more active play than sedentary or still play, and that they need to get adequate sleep[5].
    • Setting your family up for successfully meeting the amount physical activity per day can help to reduce medical and mental health issues from arising later on.
    • Getting quality sleep is a crucially important aspect of children and adult’s lives and is necessary for a person to be able to function appropriately. Prioritizing a healthy sleep schedule and lots of physical activity can help parents fit in minimal screen time when they can, but not to become so engrossed in sedentary screen time that there is no time left for what is most needed.
  • Communicate and Collaborate with Family
    • Talking about and managing screen time is difficult, especially with children. Helping them to be a part of the process and keeping yourself accountable to screen time regulations and restrictions can help improve your relationships at home and increase your connection with one another. Having enriching family experiences at times when screens may have previously been used to disconnect from one another can help improve family life and everyone’s mood at home.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events