Smartphones, tablets, e-readers, laptops, HDTVs – technology is a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. Adults live and breathe by these devices, using them for work and play. But what about children? How much screen time for kids is safe?

Tablets can help children learn, and e-readers provide unprecedented access to books. Laptops are great for on-the-go education and homework assignments. But how much screen time is too much, and what limits should parents place on children? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) takes a hard line on this issue, and recommends that children two and under have no screen time, and that older children are limited to two hours a day. The AAP screen time guidelines are stringent, and some doctors and researchers recommend a more relaxed approach that is practical for our modern lives.

Doctors do agree that setting a time limit is important, as is ensuring that the time spent using tablets, computers, and smartphones is quality time that is educational and beneficial to the child. The doctors at Woodburn Pediatrics recommend that parents seek out educational games for tablet time: preschoolers can benefit from apps that teach counting, letters, and colors; young children can learn about phonics and math; children 8-12 can learn about science and history through interactive games and videos; and teens can explore music, art, or even learn a new language.

When you observe children playing video games —especially the “competitive” ones (not constructive games, such as Minecraft) — you commonly find that children play the game for about 20 – 30 minutes, then seem to switch to an obsessive mode, where they are totally enmeshed in the game, at a level that isn’t really “play” anymore. Parents can allow children to play these games, but limit game time to half an hour. After that, turn it off, go do something else (non-screen time). It is alright to have further half hour sessions later in the day.

AAP guidelines recommend that parents create screen-free zones in the home by ensuring that children’s bedrooms don’t have TVs, computers, or video games. Further, the AAP recommends that parents turn the TV off during dinner, and that parents themselves refrain from using smartphones or tablets during meals or family time. This allows parents and children to connect better, free from distraction, and also sets a good example for the children to follow as they grow up. Finally, the AAP recommends that children balance their screen time with other forms of entertainment, such as outdoor play, reading, drawing, sports, hobbies, and using their imagination in free play.

Child development experts have long agreed that passively sitting in front of the TV for hours at a time is bad for the brain, because it doesn’t provide any educational benefits. Hours of sedentary behavior from watching TV or using a computer contributes to health problems, most notably childhood obesity. The research on long-term tablet usage is not as extensive because tablets and smartphones are relatively new additions to the market, within the last 15 or so years. One thing these researchers and experts can agree on, however, is that too much screen time has the possibility to negatively affect growing and changing brains. But how?

It’s possible that tablet use could adversely affect children’s attention spans, motor control, language skills, decision making abilities, and addiction tendencies. New research backs up pediatric ophthalmologists’ fears that prolonged exposure to computers and tablets could cause early myopia, or nearsightedness. The National Eye Institute published a study a few years ago stating that myopia in Americans has increased more than 66 percent over the last 30 years. Children who are nearsighted have difficulty seeing clearly at a distance, which proves difficult in the classroom. These kids are unable to see the board, which makes learning extremely problematic, and can negatively affect a child’s self-esteem if he or she gets bad marks as a result.

Technology must be used with caution, especially when it comes to children who don’t possess the skills to regulate their own behavior. When parents set a good example and provide screen time boundaries, children are healthier and happier, and perform better in school. If you have questions or concerns about the appropriate amount of screen time for your child or would like to schedule an appointment, please contact us today at Woodburn Pediatric Clinic.