Dear Doctors: Our neighbor's kids, who don't have access to computers, video games or other technology, spend a lot of time playing together outdoors. How can we wean our own kids from their screens without causing a family rebellion?
Dear Reader: You're facing a real challenge that has crept up on parents in the last decade or so. Once the argument was simply about getting kids to turn off the TV. Today, though, an array of devices effortlessly capture our children's -- and let's be honest, our own -- time and attention.
When the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a study about screen time six years ago, the results were eye-opening. Its research showed that children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend more than 7 1/2 hours each day in front of screens of one kind or another. And that didn't include the use of a computer for homework.
Why is this a problem? Children who spend that much time immobilized in front of a screen, whether it's the TV, a computer, smartphone or video game console, are at significantly greater risk of obesity. There is evidence that kids who play a lot of video games are more likely to display aggressive behavior. Sleep problems due to sustained screen use are common. And a preference for the immersive world of a tech device over the companionship of siblings or friends can lead to antisocial behavior.
So how do you win the battle for your kids' attention?
The biggest challenge may be that, first, you need to set a good example. How many times have you driven by a playground and seen parents completely absorbed in their smartphones? If the tug of the screen is difficult for an adult to resist, imagine its effect on young and malleable minds.
Begin by setting strict guidelines for yourself and (here's the hard part) following them. Once you've got your own screen time under control, you're on solid footing to address your children's habits.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no media use for children younger than 18 to 24 months old. One hour per day of high-quality programming is deemed to be OK for children 2 to 5 years old. Although the academy no longer makes a specific recommendation regarding children 6 and older, two hours per day of screen time is a reasonable goal.
-- For best results, start with a family discussion. Tell your children what you're doing and why. Explain that they will sleep better, have more energy and will have time for other activities.
-- Create screen time limits and take a few weeks to ease into them. Tapering off will allow your family to work together toward a common goal.
-- Make a weekly chart to log screen time and go over the results as a family.
-- Create screen-free bedrooms for everyone in the family. (Yes, adults too.)
-- Meals should be screen-free, including smartphones and TVs.
-- Plan alternate activities, like taking a family hike or bike ride, baking cookies together or having a game night.
-- Resist the urge to use screen time as either a reward or punishment.
Although it may be rough going at first, by helping your kids to look away from their screens, you're giving them a real and loving gift.