Limiting kids’ screen time? Mission possible.

Excess screen time can have a negative impact. Here are some tips to limit it, without the meltdown.

We live in a digital age. Chances are, you don’t know anyone who doesn’t own a smart phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer. Many of us have all of the above, not to mention video consoles, high-definition TVs, gaming devices and more.

It all adds up to a whole lot of time spent staring at a screen — 11 hours a day on average for adults in Canada [source:]. That includes watching TV as well as interacting with handheld devices. Of course, for adults, much of that screen activity is likely to be work-related. But what about your kids?

Average screen time for teens is nine hours a day. For kids 8 to 12, it’s 6 hours and for kids 2 to 5, it’s 4.5. [source: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry].

And that’s where problems can arise.

The downside of digital

Too much time on screen can lead to a host of physical and psychological problems, including obesity [source: BMJ Journal], headaches, neck and shoulder pain, eye strain, irritability, reduced attention span and problems sleeping [source: All About Vision].

The medical journal Preventive Medicine Reports notes that kids from 2 to 17 who spend more than 7 hours a day on screen are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety. [source: Science Direct]

So how much time on screen is too much? The American Academy of Pediatrics provides the following guidelines:

  • Kids younger than 18 months: 0, with the exception of video chatting
  • Kids 2 to 5: 1 hour a day
  • Kids 6 and older: Set consistent limits that ensure they get at least one hour of exercise daily and 8 to 12 hours of sleep

What you can do

If you think your kids are spending too much time on their screens, here are some tips to help you dial it back a notch.

Set a daily limit. Consider treating screen time like an allowance, with a daily allotment. Unused hours from one day can be “banked” for future use.

Interrupt at a natural break. If you unplug the device right when your child is about to break through to the next level of their favourite video game, you can expect a scene. Instead, turn off at the end of a level or the end of the TV show.

Bar devices from the breakfast/dinner table. Mealtime should be a time to interact face-to-face, catch up on the events of the day and rediscover the art of conversation.

No devices in the bedroom. Your child’s bedroom should be a device-free zone. That means no television, no tablet, no smartphone. Studies consistently show that children who have media devices in their bedroom are more likely not to get the sleep that they need.

Get outside. Weather permitting, spend some family time in the fresh air getting a little exercise, whether walking, biking or playing ball.

Engage in media with them. It’s important to know what your child is doing on-screen, especially for “tweens” and young adolescents. Children of this age may be subject to — or even engaging in — cyber-bullying. They also may not realize how dangerous it can be to share their personal information or photos online.

Have a device-free vacation. Even if it’s just for a weekend, try to spend some time together with no screens whatsoever.

Substitute other activities. Show your kids all the wonderful things they can do without a screen — reading, for example, or cooking. If they’re artistically inclined, consider signing them up for music, art or dance classes. If they’re more into sports, keep an eye out for local baseball, soccer or football games. Even something as simple as installing a basketball hoop above the garage door can help motivate them to get off the couch.

Be a role model. Reducing your own screen time can have benefits for you as well as your kids. While it can be tempting after a day at work to come home and vegetate in front of the TV, try to mix it up a bit. Go for a walk, organize your closet or make something special for dinner.

Get the app. Ironically, one of the best ways to monitor your kids’ screen time is to use an app on your own device. Screen Time Parental Controls are available for both iOS and Android, with a range of free and paid services that allow you to set screen time limits, pause your child’s device, make schedules and set and approve tasks.

Focus on the good

Finally, remember that not all screen time is created equal. Digital media play an important role in introducing your child to current events, important social and environmental issues, current events and more. For children who are shy or have difficulty interacting with others in person, the screen can foster social inclusion. And there’s an abundance of educational and creative programming available that can have a positive impact.

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