Going on a Digital Diet

New year, new you! Let’s take a look at our electronic habits and how they affect our children.

If you have ever wondered why we don’t have open wifi in our office, we have made an active choice to make office visits an opportunity for children to learn to interact and get to know their pediatricians, and for parents to offer hands-on support through an often challenging real world experience of a visit to the doctor.  

These days we use the term “screen time” frequently, and often disparagingly, yet at the same time we realize how many engaging learning opportunities exist online or on television. Our concerns are not all about cyber-bullying or excessive gaming. They also center around what have we given up to create these digital minutes in our lives. This time is borrowed from our family interaction time and our children’s fort-building/daydreaming/imaginary-play time. Digital time should not have an outsized share of our children’s days.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has an outstanding website for parents, HealthyChildren.org that is an extensive source of reliable up-to-date information about children’s health, development, and safety. There is an excellent interactive tool on the site about managing family digital time that we recommend as a stepping off point in our discussion of finding a healthy balance of screen time in our children’s lives. Parents can create a family contract specific for each child’s age to specify screen-free zones, screen-free times, device curfews, diversifying media, balancing online/offline lives, manners, digital citizenship and safety. Check out the article on creating a Family Media Use plan in the family life section under media. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/default.aspx

Quoting from the healthychildren.org site, pediatricians recommend mindful age appropriate media use:

“The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents to help their children develop healthy media use habits early on. For children younger than 18 months, use of screen media other than video-chatting should be discouraged. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming/apps and use them together with children, because this is how toddlers learn best. Letting children use media by themselves should be avoided. For children 2 to 5 years, media limits are very appropriate. Limit screen use to no more than 1 hour or less per day of high-quality programming. Co-view or co-play with your children, and find other activities for you to do together that are healthy for the body and mind (e.g., reading, teaching, talking, and playing together).

All children and teens need adequate sleep (8-12 hours, depending on age), physical activity (1 hour), and time away from media. Designate media-free times together (e.g., family dinner) and media-free zones (e.g., bedrooms). Children should not sleep with devices in their bedrooms, including TVs, computers, and smartphones. Parents are encouraged to develop personalized media use plans for their children. Media plans should take into account each child’s age, health, personality, and developmental stage.”

What do medical experts in other fields have to say about screen time?

  • Ophthalmologists are concerned about increased rates of nearsightedness and recommend the 20/20/20 rule. Take a break every 20 minutes and look 20 feet in the distance for at least 20 seconds.
  • Psychiatrists have written extensively about social media and screen time use being associated with increased rates of anxiety and depression.
  • Sleep specialists recommend electronic devices be turned off well before bedtime and not be kept in the bedroom in order to promote restful sleep of healthy duration.

Our challenge as parents and pediatricians is to check our own behavior first. If we model warm social engagement, tolerance of emotional distress, and creative unstructured relaxation time, we will be more in a position to advise young people. Limiting time spent on electronic media and choosing the time spent wisely opens up time to be fully present and supportive in our children’s lives.

Written by: Dr. Beaty