By Cynthia Howes, CPNP

Pediatric health practitioners have long cautioned parents about limiting the amount of television their children watch. Now, with the internet, smartphones, tablets, and portable gaming systems, screen time has increased dramatically.

In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised its recommendations about watching television to include these new media. The goal is not to label these devices or their contents as bad, but to give parents information to make informed decisions about how, when and where they are used by their children, and provide strategies for families to minimize harmful effects on a child’s physical and emotional development.

Cynthia Howes, RN, CPNP
Cynthia Howes, RN, CPNP

The AAP suggests that for children under the age of two years old, watching television or use of any other electronic media serves no proven positive purpose. We talk to parents of infants about this quite a bit. There are companies who advertise their DVDs or other educational media products with claims that they will aid infants and young children with intellectual development. The fact is that there is no research indicating these materials help infants in any way with their maturation or capacity to learn. Screen time can hurt an infant’s development by interrupting their concentration and focus in mastering a task.

For children ages 2 through 18, the AAP recommends limiting screen time to no more than two hours a day. That includes activities like watching TV programs or movies, playing video games, web surfing or going on social media sites. Using computers to write papers or do other homework assignments does not count toward that two hour limitation, as these exercises are intended to actively engage his or her mind as opposed to merely providing entertainment.

Obesity is one of the chief health concerns for limiting screen time. The hope is that it will curtail the unconscious snacking we all do when watching TV. One study revealed that while limiting TV viewing time did not increase the amount of physical activity in children, it did reduce their body mass index. This is because kids (and adults, for that matter) tend to eat more when watching TV, because they aren’t paying attention to signals from their body indicating that they are full.

Another serious concern with multiple TVs in homes and the proliferation of new media is the increasing isolation it can cause. If children are in separate rooms, there is no parental monitoring of the programs being viewing on TV or the locations being surfed on the internet. If there is just one television in a central location, there’s going to have to be negotiations about what will be watched, as well as an opportunity to have a conversation about the program content. Some families have a TV but only use it to watch DVDs. Other parents use DVR or other recording technology to help limit screen time and skip over undesirable commercial messages.

Studies show that one-third to one-half of all American children have a TV in their bedroom. They may also be taking their smart phone or tablet to bed with them, leaving parents with little to no ability to know how much they’re watching or even what the content of the programming is. There have been studies done that show older kids who have TVs in their bedrooms score lower on standardized tests. It’s up for debate how much of this is because it’s a distraction from homework, whether it removes the opportunity for parental oversight, or if it is affecting their ability to get a good night’s sleep. There is no disputing that the impact can be negative.

Parents can implement any number of ways to ensure their child’s screen time is limited to two hours a day. Having a list of activity options or even an activity box will help when the child states, “I’m bored”. Having smartphones and computers in a neutral location during the night avoids unsupervised use. Smartphones and computers are in every aspect of our lives but making sure that we incorporate their use while developing healthy lifestyle behaviors is a vital parental role.

Cynthia Howes, RN, CPNP is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner at Just So Pediatrics, a department of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.