Natural Health and Wellness for the Whole Family

The Importance of Limiting Screen Time

By Sarah Axtell, ND October 1, 2019

We live in a world where phones, tablets, laptops, and tvs are ubiquitous. It is time to pause and question the effects of them…especially on the health and development of our children.

A 2015 survey by Common Sense Media found that children ages 8-12 are spending an average of five hours and twelve minutes per day consuming digital media (not including listening to music and using screens at school or for homework). Teens ages 13-18 are spending about eight hours and twenty minutes on digital media per day.

In 2010, Kaiser Family Foundation actually found that kids from 8-18 are consuming more than 8.5 hours of media per day, including listening to music on a device. This survey was almost 10 years ago. I can only bet the amount kids are using digital media today has increased.

THIS IS NOT OK. It is time we as parents, educators, and health professionals have this discussion.       

First, let’s discuss WHY it is important to limit screen time:

  1. Promotes lack of focus and inattention. If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD or is exhibiting ADHD tendencies, limiting screen time is a must!
  2. Many modern video games promote aggression and violence.
  3. Increases anxiety. Girls especially are experiencing higher rates of anxiety thanks to CONSTANT contact with friends- texting until the wee hours of the night and comparing themselves with others on social media. According to this research, there has been a significant decline in teen mental health since 2012, linked to smart-phones and screen-time.
  4. Imagination and creativity are lacking. Researchers have examined writings of middle-schoolers in the early 90’s with those written in 2011. Writings in 2011 are more linear and contain fewer fantasy elements. Language was also found to be more simplified and less varied.
  5. Inhibits outside play and engagement with the natural world. It’s not just what the screen time is doing to our children’s brains; we must also consider what they are missing out on when they are constantly in front of the tablet, tv or phone.  We are talking to our babies less. Older kids are moving less and interacting with nature less. Send the kids outside to make a fort, ride their bike, to simply be.a.kid. Let’s prime kids with NATURE.
  6. Screens are addicting. Withdrawal is real. I see this especially in my older daughter. She can be edgy and irritable when we turn off the tv.
  7. EMF (electromagnetic frequency) exposure. Our children will have a much higher total exposure to radio frequencies over their lifetime than today’s adults. Radio frequency EMFs are considered “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. There is convincing evidence that the development of gliomas, a type of brain cancer, is predicted by earlier and heavier use of cell phones. An increased risk of childhood leukemia has also been associated with exposure to EMF.
  8. Negatively impacts sleep. Blue light exposure can negatively affect our circadian rhythm and melatonin production. Avoid screens a minimum of 1 hour before bed.

How much is too much? Recommendations:

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under 18 months should avoid digital media. Even “educational” programs should be avoided.

It is recommended that children ages 2-5 should watch no more than an hour a day, which includes tv and Netflix, and games on phones and tablets.

If you have babies or small children- establish a good routine without the use of screens. Kids will expect only what we have already given them. If playing with Tupperware and pots and pans are what you set up for your child in the kitchen while you cook dinner, they will expect that and be content to do this. But if your “go to” is tv while you make dinner, your child will learn to expect this on a regular basis. And then playing with Tupperware will just not compare to Daniel Tiger.   

For older kids, the AAP said that families had to set their own guidelines. I personally think this recommendation is too loose, and we need stricter guidelines. I think children and adolescents should spend no more than 1 hour per day on screens (homework aside). This includes video games, texting, tv, Netflix, YouTube. This may seem like a dramatic decrease, but it’s never too late to start establishing new routines. Your children may resist at first, and there will likely be a fight. But you are the parent or caregiver, and it is up to you to set these boundaries. 

If you have a tween, don’t buy them a phone. Plain and simple- kids are growing up too fast. There are so many reasons we can justify giving our young children phones- they walk themselves home from school, they have extracurricular activities after school, etc. But we have to remind ourselves we somehow managed as a child without a phone. We were resourceful when a predicament arose, and I think we should believe that our children can be resourceful as well.

Consider getting a landline if you leave your child home and you need to be able to communicate with him/her.

If you have a teen and a phone is necessary to communicate, set boundaries. For example, phones are not allowed in the bedroom. No phones at the dinner table. No phones an hour before bed.

If you’re a parent, be a good example. Set boundaries for yourself as well. Remove the notifications on your phone. Have set times you check email. Avoid all screens an hour before bed.

Some Tips for Reducing screen time:

  • Subscribe to magazines, such as Highlights, National Geographic for Kids, Sports Illustrated for Kids. These magazines provide for good entertainment for long car rides, long waits at the doctor’s office, and Saturday mornings.
  • Utilize your local library or bookstore for new books or audio books. My kids LOVE “Play-aways,” individual hand-held books on tape available at the library. These audio books encourage more imagination than the passive role they play in front of a tv.
  • Save screen time for special occasions, such as “Friday Movie Night.” This can be a good opportunity for everyone to sit down together and bond.
  • Know that it is Ok for kids to be bored. Kids don’t need to be constantly stimulated. If they can’t find something to do, put them to work.

As parents, we too often use the tv as a babysitter. I get it. Parenting is HARD. And it’s easy to justify pulling out the phone or tablet when times get tough- long car rides, long wait at the doctor’s office, the incessant whining that “there is nothing to do.”

 It takes a village. Ask your neighbors when you need help. Arrange playdates. Find good babysitters in your area.

Find your community. Find your tribe. We should be allies for each other. For instance, a few years ago we made a pact with our neighbors to delay giving our children phones until high school. Having other like-minded parents to “hold us accountable” helps.

It’s ok if you are not perfect with these guidelines. Every household is different. If it’s daunting to dramatically make these changes, start with baby steps. I realize technology is part of our every-day modern day life, but the quantity of time spent on screens has gotten out of hand.

Let’s continue to have these tough conversations with other parents, educators, and health professionals.

Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.


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