By Dr. Bailey Alford, Board-Certified Pediatrician
We live in a technological age of constant exposure to digital media, whether through cell phones, TV, computers, or video games. Children have become quite proficient in the use of technology as it has now become commonplace in education with some children who were enrolled in full-time “virtual learning” during the pandemic. Social media and screen time can affect a child’s behavior and social interactions with others – for better or worse. According to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, 95% of adolescents either own or have access to a smartphone, and 89% state they use it to access the internet several times per day. This usage includes access to “social media” sites, including Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. The use of social media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Staying informed and aware of your child’s social media presence and usage has never been more important.
What are the recommended “screen time” guidelines for children?
The American Academy of Pediatrics provides recommendations regarding screen time based on the child’s age:
- Two years old and younger: Screen time should be minimal and only used when an adult is viewing with the child. Some good examples are FaceTiming with a family member or educational programming, like learning ABCs, numbers, colors, and shapes.
- 2-5 year-olds: Screen time should be limited to no more than one hour per day. Make sure you pre-screen any media your child will watch to ensure it is age-appropriate and non-violent. Unfortunately, not all media that is labeled, or appears appropriate for children based on titles or cover photos, ends up being what is advertised. Studies have shown that toddlers and young children who spend excessive amounts of time in front of a screen can have language and learning delays from a lack of meaningful face-to-face play and learning time.
- Older children and adolescents: the 1-hour rule still applies, however, with the understanding that children in this age group may need to use screens for educational purposes more often, making total daily screen time longer. Remember to take frequent breaks to avoid eye strain and encourage physical activity outdoors.
What are the potential side effects of excessive screen time?
Excessive screen time in children and adolescents usually correlates with less time being physically active, interacting with peers, spending quality time with family, or getting to sleep on time. These can lead to significant health consequences. Excessive screen time can increase the risk of obesity in children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least one hour of physical activity per day to maintain a healthy weight. Screen time in excess can also affect sleep initiation and sleep quality. The “blue light” emitted from screens can be a “wake up” signal to the brain and consequently take longer for children to fall asleep. It is recommended that adolescents get at least 8-10 hours of sleep per night; therefore, the hour leading up to bedtime should be a “screen-free” time. If your child or adolescent is spending most of their time with their face buried in a screen, they are spending less time interacting socially with peers or interacting meaningfully with other family members. Perhaps the most detrimental effect of unmonitored social media is the potential for exposure to high-risk behaviors, including substance use, self-harm, sexual solicitation, or cyberbullying. The effects of continuously seeing “virtual violence” should not be underestimated. Children are great imitators and will be at a higher risk for aggressive behavior in real life.
How can I effectively monitor my child’s screen time and social media usage?
For younger children, this is simple – make it unavailable. Replace screen time with imaginative play, time outside, or play dates with friends. For older children and adolescents who have access to computers or laptops for school use and smartphones for communication with their parents, this can be much tougher. It is good first to set some ground rules. Adolescents should have well-communicated expectations from you as their parent on what is an acceptable use of electronic devices, when and where they are and are not allowed, and what is and is not appropriate to view or search. It is a good idea to make bedrooms, mealtimes, quality family time, and the hour leading up to bedtime “screen-free” times. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends creating a “Family Media Plan” that can be personalized based on your family’s needs and rules surrounding social media usage. To create your own plan, visit www.healthychildren.org/MediaUsePlan. Finally, make sure you are aware of and monitoring any social media or gaming activity your child participates in. Know their “online” friends, monitor the sites they are visiting using browser histories, and restrict access to violent content.