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Kids and Technology: When to Limit It and How

How to keep screen time in check for kids' health and development

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It seems these days that kids are operating electronic devices such as smartphones practically moments after being born. Just take a look around any local playgroup or playground: You’ll be likely to see kids as young as 2 or even younger clutching mom or dad’s phone to play games or view videos. When it comes to technology, kids are not only starting to use it at a younger age, but are using it in more varied situations, both at home and at school. Today, technology for kids is a source of learning and entertainment, and in a pinch when parents have to get dinner made or take a few minutes to answer emails, a terrific babysitter.

For school-age kids, technology can be a double-edged sword. There are countless benefits that can be garnered from using technology: Computers can be used to do research, play online math games, and improve language skills. Television (and DVDs) can offer educational programming such as documentaries and other educational materials. And even videogames can encourage developmental skills such as hand-eye coordination (and some motion-controlled active games on the Wii or Xbox with Kinect can promote physical activity such as dancing). But all these electronic devices can also have some distinct disadvantages as well. Here are some reasons why technology should be limited for kids and how to do it.

Reasons for Limiting Kids’ Exposure to Technology

  • It may interfere with sleep. Getting enough sleep can be challenging enough for busy kids today who often have homework and after-school activities crammed into their weekdays and extracurricular activities and sports on weekends. Add to that numerous hours of TV watching -- which averages up to as much as 3 to 4 hours a day, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry -- and you have a recipe for sleep-deprivation in kids. Moreover, electronic stimulation, such as from watching TV or using the computer, has been shown to interfere with sleep (both falling asleep and staying asleep).

  • It may cut into family time/person-to-person interaction. When we are using technology such as computers, games, and TV, we are not interacting together. And given how difficult it can be for families to find some good quality time to spend with each other, having technology cut into those moments is something parents may want to prevent as much as possible. While it can be fun to have a family movie night or play a videogame together, the fact is that screen time means less face-to-face interaction time.

  • It may encourage short attention span. Studies have shown that too much screen time may be associated with attention problems.

  • It may interfere with schoolwork. Children who watch a lot of TV are more likely to have lower grades and read fewer books. And research has shown that cutting down kids' screen time may improve kids' health and grades.

  • It may lead to less physical activity. More screen time has been associated with reduced physical activity and higher risk of obesity in kids.

  • It may expose kids to too much advertising and inappropriate content. Many television shows and commercials depict sexuality and violence as well as stereotypes and drug and alcohol use. Many commercials also promote junk food and toys in powerful and alluring ways that are designed to get kids to want these items.

How to Limit Technology

It can be all too easy to simply turn on the TV or let them play a videogame when your kids say they are bored. But there are many options when it comes to finding alternative forms of entertainment. Letting kids use technology with limits can be achievable if you keep some of these key tips in mind.

  • Do not put a TV in your child’s room. Having a TV in the bedroom has been linked to a number of problems including lower test scores, sleeping problems, and obesity.

  • Turn it off. When the kids are not watching a specific program, turn off the television. Keep it off during mealtimes and especially when they are studying or doing homework.

  • Help your child choose a videogame or a show. The best way to know what your child is watching or playing is by helping her pick out a show or a game. When picking out a new family movie or game, read the reviews or previews, ask other parents, and above all, know your child and trust your own instincts.

  • Limit her screen time. Whether it’s one hour of TV and videogames a day or a couple of hours a week, limit the amount of time your child spends watching TV or playing videogames and stick to that number.

  • Opt for alternatives to technology activities. Find great ways to spend family time together without tech devices, such as by playing board games or reading good books.

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