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North Hills Monthly

Unplugging Your Kid

Mar 31, 2016 10:26AM ● By Jennifer Monahan

In an unsettling example of irony, this article exists because I just sat my 3-year-old in front of the television to watch Caillou so I could snag a few minutes to write about setting limits on kids’ screen time.

The pull of TV, tablet, computer, movie and phone screens is strong. In theory it should be easy to limit our children’s screen time to the less than an hour or two per day as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But sometimes it’s just so much easier to let them watch TV or play Minecraft so we can make dinner—or write an article— in peace!

The average child spends about five hours a day ‘plugged in’ to electronics, according to SCAN, a child-advocacy organization in northern Virginia. That level of engagement with screens is problematic.

“There are a lot of reasons to limit screen time,” explained Dr. Clare Sarknas, a pediatrician in Cranberry Township. “The biggest one is that kids are spending less time doing everything else—playing, being creative, exercising.”

Robert Ceh, principal of Seneca Valley Middle School, raised another concern. “Students’ minds are certainly engaged when they are online,” said Ceh. “But when kids spend too much time online, their ability to interact with people can be hindered. They lose skills like getting along with people and working to solve arguments.”

So how should parents set appropriate limits?

As principal of a school with over 1,200 seventh- and eighth-graders—and as a parent of school-age children—Ceh believes that no single answer fits everyone. Finding strategies that work for each family is key; for example, he suggested setting a particular time of day that kids are allowed to use screens.

Modeling the behavior you want your children to display is also important. “We need to show them it’s okay to miss a text or a call,” Ceh said.

Sarknas suggested creating media-free zones, especially in the bedroom and around meal-times. “Having a TV in the bedroom can really disrupt children’s sleep habits,” she explained.

Her assertion is supported by concrete data from SCAN; children with TVs in their rooms spend an average of 90 minutes of extra viewing time daily. And a Harvard Health Letter published in 2012 warned that the blue light emitted by electronics not only disrupts the body’s natural sleep cycles but may potentially cause a slew of more serious health problems.

As a parent and physician, Sarknas realizes the importance of setting realistic goals for how children connect with screens. Instead of banning TV altogether, she suggested that parents limit viewing time and then watch programs along with their children. “If something that they see in a show or even in a commercial is confusing, you have the opportunity to discuss it,” she said.

One strategy suggested in SCAN’s literature is to start with a reality check by documenting a child’s screen time for one week. Once parents have an idea of what the current scenario looks like, they can work together with their children to come up with new guidelines.

Experts at SCAN also recommend that parents help kids find positive activities to replace the time previously spent on electronics. Going for a walk, playing a board game, heading out to a park or stopping by the library are all possible alternatives.

As for me, since both Caillou and this article are about wrapped up and my parental guilt has kicked in, I will now heed the experts’ advice and head outside for some quality time with a toddler on a tricycle.

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