Why and How to Limit Screen Time

Screen time has been a hot topic of discussion among parents, educators, and therapists. Research has shown that too much screen time for children can cause increased risk for delays in cognitive and social development. These effects can be both direct, as a result of the task demands of mobile screen activities (e.g., videogames), and indirect, as children often refrain from more developmentally beneficial activities in favor of screen time. For example, mobile screen time typically involves frequent attention shifts and little demand on inhibitory control (ability to inhibit potent reactions for an often less desirable response, such as in waiting for one’s turn in a game) and working memory skills.

Habitual screen use can result in decreased impulse control and executive function difficulties due to the fast-paced nature of mobile screen tasks (e.g., ability to click hyperlinks, switch between apps and games on a whim). Indirectly, increased use of screens can impact focused attention skills because by engaging in screen time activities, children spend less time doing activities that organically require practice and development of inhibitory control skills, working memory, and creativity such as board games, outdoor and sports games, and creative arts.

Beyond these potential effects on attention and self-control, frequent engagement in screen based activities may impact the development of emotional and self-regulation. Often, mobile screen devices are used by children and adults as a way to deal with difficult emotions such as boredom and anger. When an adult allows a child to use a mobile device as a means to cope with an uncomfortable emotion, the child misses an opportunity to process, experience, problem-solve and cope with the emotion. The child also loses out on important social connections that can occur when an adult or peer offers emotional support to help with coping, or co-regulation.

The use of screen time to pacify a child who is having a meltdown or tantrum is an obvious example, but another less recognized example is when adults and children reach for a mobile screen device to cope with boredom. Research has suggested that boredom can foster creativity and social problem solving, as when the brain is not actively engaged, it defaults to a network that is responsible for social thinking and mind wandering. When a child is engaged in screen time, not only does she miss out on opportunities for actual social engagement but also for the chance to engage in creative and social thinking. 

Finally, screen time involves predominantly sedentary focal activity, and requires little body or environmental awareness. Both focal and ambient awareness are necessary for optimal function and health. An example of this is the concept of mindful and mindless eating; when people watch television or engage in screen time while eating, they tend to eat more, not notice signs of feeling satisfied and are more likely to overeat and experience less enjoyment during eating.

Adults are recognizing the need for limits on screen time and at the same time, realizing just what a powerful reward screens are for children. However, a new study has shown that using screens for punishment and rewards can actually result in increased use of screen time. In addition, the study found that increased parent screen time was related to increased child screen time.

So how do we allow children (and ourselves) to engage in screen based activities that can offer opportunities for learning, entertainment, and social engagement via social media without negatively impacting development and quality of life? Here are some suggestions for helping to grow healthy media habits:

  1. Work with children to establish family guidelines and limits for screen time. This can include the number of minutes allowed per day for playing games, exploring social media, watching tv and youtube, and surfing the internet. Establish rules for both caregivers and children, and model adherence to these rules. 
  2. Set limits for adult related screen time, even when it pertains to work. Checking email may be important, but when others are present, it may send a message that the other person isn't important, valued or interesting. If something arises that requires urgent response, explain this to the child, and put the device away when the issue is resolved. I have begun to put my phone in a drawer or on a shelf where it is out of reach or out of sight, and when devices are out of reach, there is less temptation to check or be distracted by the impulse to use them.  
  3. Teach children about the possible negative effects of screen time on the brain and body. This can be used as an explanation for why there may be a rule that screens shouldn't be used as a way to cope with anger or boredom. In our house, we have a rule that screen time cannot be used as a way to calm down or deal with feeling bored. Help the child to identify other new strategies for coping with difficult emotions.
  4. Refrain from using screen time during meals, and explain to children that mealtimes are a time for eating and socializing. Across cultures, mealtimes offer a chance for socialization and intimacy, and this opportunity may be missed if attention is being captured by a screen. Make room for exceptions to this rule if it is meaningful for family bonding routines; for example, some families eat popcorn while watching a movie, or have snacks while watching the Superbowl.
  5. Remember that there are some types of screen time that can be beneficial to children. Applications for learning languages, practicing math facts, writing stories, teaching coding and design, and art based apps and games can help children build skills and foster intrinsic motivation for learning. Biofeedback apps such as HeartMath and Mightier can help adults and children to build self-awareness and self-regulation skills in a fun format.
  6. Last but not least, work with children to explore and discover new interests, hobbies, and games. Use child interest in screen activities to spark interest in non-screen activities. For example, if a child likes fighting games, she may enjoy martial arts or fencing classes. Of a child likes games of strategy, he may enjoy playing chess.

Checklists and visuals like the following can be helpful to show children examples of other healthy and fun activity options. 

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them below.

If you have enjoyed this post and think that it may benefit others, I would be grateful if you would share it via email or Facebook.

-Dr. Monica Jackman, Little Lotus Therapy 



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