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Kids Spending More Time on Screens Than Ever Before

Children's Health doctor warns too much screen time can impact development in younger children.

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Over the years, doctors once considered it an epidemic. Kids spending way too much time on a digital screen.

However, the thought of limiting screen time during this pandemic seems nearly impossible with schools going virtual.

Kids are in front of screens now more than ever with virtual class, Tik Tok videos, playing video games and Netflix.

Some parents are finding a little bit more difficult to find a balance, including Laura Thornton of Dallas.

"Honestly, during the school week, they were so busy with school, homework and sports that it wasn't really a big problem,” she said. “But they're spending a lot more time on Xbox, computers and anything with a screen."

Children’s Health doctor warns too much screen time can impact development in younger children.

Thornton said she actually had a screen time schedule with her high schoolers even before the pandemic.

But now she's finding new ways to limit the screens, like asking her boys to do chores before they can get access to screen time.

"Our kids -- and I'm guessing most kids -- can be incentivized with screens. We've found it helpful to say, ‘OK, you can have the remote after you do this or you can have screen time after you do that.’ We're not great about it every day, but when it gets to be excessive, trying to be creative and use it as a reward works for us,” she said.

Dr. Alice Holland, a clinical neuropsychologist at Children's Health and UT Southwestern said it's important for parents to check in with their kids and try their best to find other things for kids to do outside the screen.

“It’s definitely uncharted territory because we’ve never seen this much reliance on screens,” she said. “The brain is not designed to learn from the screen, the brain was designed to learn from human interaction and explore the natural environment.”

She said too much screen time can have negative effects on development, memory, attention span and language skills -- especially in younger children. That doesn't change just because families are at home all day.

“Especially during those early years of a child’s brain is really still developing and what they’re really relying on is the interactions of the world to help core cognitive function,” Dr. Holland said. "Even though school is out and life seems like it’s on pause, you still have to consider the effect of screens on child brain. And you’re also setting habits that are going to be hard to break once things go back to normal.“

The brain isn’t fully developed until the early to mid-20s, so the concern on-screen time affecting brain development applies to teenagers as well. Prior to the pandemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics had long recommended that kids under two not be exposed to screens at all and that older kids' time be limited to two hours a day or less.

“For babies even learning to speak is something that we don’t actually sit down and teach a child to speak but they’re learning through interactions and hearing and being in the world,” said Dr. Holland. “The screen does not provide that same sort of stimulus and growing opportunity.”

Obviously the two-hour limit isn’t feasible for kids now, Dr. Holland said, but she added that parents shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. Strike a delicate balance between screen time restrictions and parental sanity, not sacrificing one or the other entirely.

“Don’t stress too much about that, it’s more about managing their time outside of that electronic school day,” she said. “You have to strike this balance as a parent between setting appropriate restrictions on your child screen time but also giving them time to interact and communicate and check-in with their friends.”

She also added that it's not a parent's job to provide constant entertainment for children. In fact, this can be detrimental to a child's development.

"Children need to experience boredom. It gives them practice in regulating their emotions as boredom may be associated with frustration and sadness," she said. "And it gives them the opportunity to grow their imagination and creativity."

She said it's healthy for development in younger children to find their own solutions to boredom, rather than having a screen put in front of them.

Dr. Holland says one way to unplug from the screen is to schedule playtime for younger children for 20 minutes at the beginning and end of the day. You can also give your kids space to be active such as rearranging the furniture in the living room for active games like hoola-hoop or building a fort.

Here are more tips for parents:

  • Don't throw screen time rules out the window, but know that it's okay to allow an extra hour here or there if it's the only way to keep children occupied during a work call, for example.
  • Question if screen time is the ONLY way to keep your child occupied when needed. Think creatively about other options that might achieve the same result: a happy, occupied, quiet child.
  • Schedule time to play with them - children crave that interaction and it promotes their cognitive, language and social development. Even if it's just 20 minutes, be fully present and engaged in play, while allowing them to direct the play.
  • Children are missing the natural environment right now. Recreate the materials they might engage with on a playground by setting up a sand or water table with a few toys.
  • Give them space to be active. This might mean rearranging furniture to create space for active games like hula-hoops and jump rope or catching soft balls in the house.
  • Rotate toys and bring a "new" one back into the active rotation when you need them to play independently for a while.
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