Steps Parents Can Take to Address Too Much Screen Time

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By Dr. Aarthi Vemana, Co-Director, Pediatric & Adolescent Sleep Center

Dear Sleep Specialist,

Is too much screen time bad for my child, even if it’s for school?

Dear Concerned Parent,

As most children attend school online this fall, we’ve gotten many questions about how much screen time is too much.

This fall, parents are facing the additional challenge of incorporating the time their child spends on a screen for school, in addition to the usual challenge of setting screen time limits. We know that screen time can negatively affect a child’s health, including an increased risk for obesity, worsening mood disorders like depression and anxiety, a higher chance of experiencing bullying, and a negative impact on sleep.

Since students can’t avoid screen time entirely this fall, here are some things parents can do to address these negative effects:

Create screen-free times within their schedule.
Most kids cannot regulate the amount of time they spend on a screen by themselves, and telling them to put the screen away in the middle of a fun game or activity may be met with some resistance. To help avoid that battle, put “screen-free time” on the schedule so that the child knows to expect this. During this time, do something active to get them moving and interactive so that they’re playing with other family members.

Set a digital curfew.
Screens should be put away about 1 hour before bedtime. Not only does a screen emit blue light, which can affect your brain’s circadian rhythm, but screen time is very activating.

Most kids (and adults) are using a screen to do something they’re interested in. Most apps and games are designed to keep you using that app or game, so it’s hard for kids to know when to put the screen down. Social media can be a great way for kids to connect with their friends and has the potential to provoke a lot of stress and anxiety. Even the news can cause a lot of stress and anxiety right now.

Set aside a screen-free zone.
Where your child is using a screen is important. If they’re attending school virtually and most of their classes are occurring in their bedroom, this will condition their brain to expect to be working in their bedrooms instead of associating that space with sleeping. If there isn’t any other space for your child to log in to their classes, make a clear space (or spaces) in the bedroom for schoolwork and make sure they are avoiding attending classes while lounging on their bed.

Another place that can be made screen-free is the dinner table. Even if the family’s schedule doesn’t allow for a family dinner every night, the dinner table can be a screen-free zone. This will help your child learn good digital well-being habits.

Charge devices outside of the bedroom.
Not only will this help to keep overnight alerts from disrupting sleep, but it will also curb the temptation to use the device after bedtime or in the middle of the night. This is another good digital well-being habit for kids to learn. If they wake up in the middle of the night and have a tough time going back to sleep, help them find a soothing non-screen related activity instead.

Know which media your kids are using.
It can be difficult to keep up with new apps, games, online content, but what your child is experiencing online is just as important as when and where they are using a screen. For help in learning more about age-appropriate online content, check out Common Sense Media.

Even if your child has a lot of screen time by attending virtual school, you can build many things into their schedule to help them learn good digital well-being habits and address the factors that have a negative impact. Parents have a lot on their plates right now, and trying to maintain balance is challenging. If you need help, the American Academy of Pediatrics has a great online resource that can help you create a media plan for your family.

And remember, kids learn a lot of their good habits by seeing what their parents are doing, so while you’re making a media plan for your child, see which recommendations you can incorporate into your schedule as well!

As the only American Academy of Sleep Medicine accredited sleep center in Northern Virginia, the specialists at Fairfax Neonatal Associates’ Pediatric & Adolescent Sleep Center evaluate and treat sleep-related problems specific to pediatrics and adolescents. Patients, ages 20 and younger, are seen by board-certified Pediatric Pulmonologists who are dedicated to fully treating a wide range of sleep disorders, including restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and more.

Learn more about Dr. Aarthi Vemana, this post’s author here, and all of Fairfax Neonatal Associates’ providers here. Connect with Fairfax Neonatal Associates’ Pediatric & Adolescent Sleep Center online or by calling one of their Sleep Center locations, including Leesburg, VA (703-226-2290), and Fairfax, VA (703-226-2290).

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