Articles Good Health

Help Children Develop Healthy Screen Habits

By Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP | Contributor

Our world is becoming increasingly saturated with electronic screens, which has many parents wondering how best to promote their child’s physical and mental health within the reality of modern life. In the years immediately following the first release of the iPad, from 2011 to 2013, the percent of children in America with access to some sort of mobile screen (smartphone, tablet, etc.) jumped from 52% to 75%.1

Technology has brought many positive changes to our daily lives. It can help us connect with others, stay up-to-date with world events, find answers to questions, and facilitate remote/virtual learning—which has been especially crucial during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

However, screen time also has the potential for various negative effects, especially for children and adolescents. Even for infants, increased screen time has been associated with delayed speech milestones.3,4 For children and adolescents, more time spent using screens—excluding virtual school instruction—has been associated with increased risks for obesity,5,6 attention problems,7 lower school achievement,8-10 mood difficulties,11,12 and loneliness.13 The side effects of screen time on mental health must be taken seriously, as research has found that loneliness can be as damaging to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.14 Teens who use technology for more than an hour or two a day are more likely to report feeling depressed, lonely, or anxious.

Banning technology is not a viable answer in our technology-based world.

Instead, parents need to teach healthy, balanced habits related to screen time. Parents should focus on helping teens engage in technology primarily for its positive aspects—connecting with others, or discovering and learning something new—while minimizing time spent as a passive audience to newsfeeds and posts, which increases the risk for feelings of loneliness and depression. To accomplish this, parents need to set rules, expectations, and consequences related to their child’s technology use.

Some rules that parents might consider implementing to help their children develop healthy screen habits include the following:

  • Establish “phone-free” times. For many families, this includes dinnertime and a few hours before bedtime, lasting until the next morning.
    • Banning phones during family meals can promote social engagement, family communication and cohesion, and emotional well-being. Use meals as a chance to check in with your children and stay connected to what’s going on in their lives.
    • Banning phones a few hours before bedtime can promote better sleep. The blue light from screens delays the release of melatonin and can make it harder to fall asleep, and poor sleep can lead to worse emotional functioning. So, avoiding screens starting a few hours before bedtime can promote both better sleep and better mental health.
  • Related to avoiding screens around bedtime, take technology out of the bedroom altogether.
    • Keep TVs, phones, tablets, and computers out of bedrooms in order to promote better sleep. This can ultimately help reduce feelings of sadness and anxiety.
    • It may be particularly effective to take possession of your child’s phone overnight so that they do not stay awake texting with friends or surfing social media.
  • Set a time limit for how many hours per day your child can use screens for entertainment purposes (e.g., social media, TV, video games).
    • This shouldn’t include time spent in virtual instruction or otherwise using a screen to complete schoolwork (e.g., typing an essay, researching for a project).
    • Some children may need an actual timer set. Don’t rely on your child to self-regulate their screen time.
    • Make sure your children have options for other activities after their daily time limit is up. This might include playing on a community or school sports team, or simply providing non-technology entertainment, such as books, art supplies, and crafting materials.
  • Model technology restraint for your children. Children and adolescents often pay more attention to what you do than what you say. As best you can, try to practice what you preach.
    • Try a tech-free day. Pick a day during the week that works best for your family, and try putting phones away for a solid 24 hours. This can foster creativity and connection.
    • Research has shown that children who observe their parents reading more regularly tend to develop stronger reading skills of their own. Next time you think about picking up your phone to scroll social media when you’re bored, think about picking up a book instead, to set a healthy example for your child.
With teenagers, household rules related to technology use will be more effective if developed collaboratively.

Having a conversation about the rules and the reasons behind them may help teens be more likely to understand and follow those rules. However, parents should remember that they always have the final say. Screens are a privilege for children, not a right. Setting rules to promote healthy screen habits may cause arguments, and your child may not be happy about limits being set. However, these limits are designed to teach children how to navigate our screen-saturated world in as balanced and healthy a way as possible, for the sake of their physical and emotional well-being both now and in their future adulthood.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, is an Associate Professor in Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, where she also conducts clinical neuropsychological evaluations of medically complex children and adolescents, specializing in cancer and rare brain diseases. Dr. Holland served as President of the Texas Psychological Association in 2019. She currently serves on the boards of the National Academy of Neuropsychology and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. She has been the recipient of numerous awards from organizations including the American Psychological Association, American Board of Professional Psychology, American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, National Academy of Neuropsychology, National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, Texas Psychological Association, and Dallas Psychological Association.

References:

  1. Common Sense Media. Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America 2013. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/zero-to-eight-childrens-media-use-in-america-2013
  2. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2737909
  3. Tanimura M, Okuma K, Kyoshima K. Television viewing, reduced parental utterance, and delayed speech development in infants and young children. JAMA Pediatrics. 2007; 161(6): 618-619.
  4. Byeon H, Hong S. Relationship between television viewing and language delay in toddlers: Evidence from a Korea national cross-sectional survey. PLoS One. 2015; 10(3): e0120663.
  5. Tanimura M, Okuma K, Kyoshima K. Television viewing, reduced parental utterance, and delayed speech development in infants and young children. JAMA Pediatrics. 2007; 161(6): 618-619.
  6. Byeon H, Hong S. Relationship between television viewing and language delay in toddlers: Evidence from a Korea national cross-sectional survey. PLoS One. 2015; 10(3): e0120663.
  7. Gentile DA, Swing EL, Lim CG, Koo A. Video game playing, attention problems, and impulsiveness: Evidence of bidirectional causality. Psych Pop Med Cult. 2012; 1(1): 62-70.
  8. Sharif I, Sargent JD. Association between television, movie, and video game exposure and school performance. Pediatrics. 2006; 118(4).
  9. Peiro-Velert C, Valencia-Peris A, Gonzalez LM, et al. Screen media usage, sleep time, and academic performance in adolescents: Clustering a self-organizing maps analysis. PLoS One. 2014; 9(6): e99478.
  10. Sharif I, Wills TA, Sargent JD. Effect of visual media use on school performance: A prospective study. J Adolesc Health. 2010; 46(1): 52.
  11. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2737909
  12. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335517301316
  13. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0265407519836170?journalCode=spra&
  14. https://www.hrsa.gov/enews/past-issues/2019/january-17/loneliness-epidemic

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