Unplug With Your Child

The average child spends five hours a day “plugged in” to a television, computer or video game for entertainment. In the course of a year, that can mean they’re spending more time in front of a screen than they are in school!

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The American Medical Association recommends that children under the age of 2 not be allowed to watch any TV or play on a computer, and that children 2 and older—even teenagers—have no more than two hours of screen time every day. This “screen time” includes all television, movies, Internet and computer or video games, including the preschool-targeted games like Leapsters and V-Techs that are advertised as being educational for even very young children. Keep in mind that kids today have access to more screen time than ever before (from a DVD player in the car to instant messaging to texting on their phones) and you soon realize just how important it is to set some boundaries and unplug with them. It’s a huge challenge for today’s parents to get it under control, but it’s worth it!

Why is too much screen time a problem?
There are so many negatives when children watch too much TV, communicate too much via email and online chats, and play too many video games:

First and foremost, health problems and weight gain. Children who watch more than five hours of television a day are four times more likely to be overweight. When a child sits in front of a TV, those are hours he or she is NOT being physically active. TV and online advertisements also heavily market junk foods to their young audiences, so in addition to decreasing the amount of time a child spends being active, they’re also encouraging unhealthy eating habits—a double threat that is putting even more children at risk of obesity and other related health problems.

There are also the behavioral issues, such as aggression and irresponsibility. TV and video games—which often glorify violence and expose even young children to sexual situations—are risk factors for violent behavior in children. They can cause aggression and anti-social behavior, create a false sense of reality and encourage irresponsible sexual activity. TV alone is estimated to be responsible for at least 10% of youth violence.

Finally, there is the isolation and boredom that comes from hours spent alone in front of a screen. Simply put, a child alone in front of a TV, computer or game console is a child NOT talking with their parents, studying for a test or playing outside with siblings and friends. As TV becomes a habit, we lose the time (and opportunity) to bond with our children and enjoy quiet time together at the end of our busy days.

How can we unplug?
So there are some incredible—and critical—reasons to help our children unplug. But HOW can you do it? Even preschoolers can put up a battle if you turn off a favorite morning cartoon!

Start by having a reality check. Create a log to record your child’s time being “plugged in” for a week. You may be shocked by how quickly the time adds up, especially the seemingly little things, like playing a handheld video game in the car, sending a few IMs or watching a movie on a Friday night. It can also be helpful to track your child’s academic and active times during the same week to compare with their screen time. Once you’ve finished your log and know your current habits, decide on new guidelines WITH your kids. You can set a two hour per day limit, as recommended by the AMA. Or be more specific and set times for different activities (like 30 minutes of TV time after homework is completed or 15 minutes of computer time after dinner). Some families choose to set a specific day or two when TV or video games are allowed. Explore what works for your family and STICK TO IT!

At first, one of the hardest things for your kids to do will be to find new ways to fill their time. Many kids (and adults, for that matter) watch TV out of boredom or to unwind. Help your kids avoid missing the screen time by taking them outside, visiting the library and shifting the focus in your house to reading, or signing them up for a new sports team or class. Develop special family-focused ways to unwind, such as a weekly game night in place of a weekly TV show they used to watch.

Set an example by limiting your own TV time. Don’t use the TV as background noise or constantly check your email or cell phone for messages. Be especially mindful to turn off the TV during meals—daily conversations over dinner are a great way to strengthen your relationship with your kids, and a TV or your laptop will only be a distraction for both of you.

Your kids may put up a fight, but you definitely want to remove all TVs, computers and gaming devices from their bedrooms. It’s simply too hard to track their screen time, know what they are watching or playing, and it pulls them away from the rest of the family. Kids with a TV in their room log an average of one and a half hours more viewing time every day.

You also don’t want to use TV or video games as a reward or punishment. It places too much emphasis on the screen, and can make your child want it even more.

When your child DOES watch a television program or logs on to the Internet, develop a specific plan with them. If they pick one show, turn it on for them at a certain time and turn it off immediately following the show. Or they might pick a specific website and you allow them to visit it for 30 minutes. Talk to them about the show or site, and ask questions. As much as possible, we should try to watch WITH our children—regardless of age. A preschooler may like to engage with his or her parent throughout Sesame Street, creating a better learning opportunity. Or a teenager may be challenged by a story about sex, violence or some other confusing subject in an evening teen drama. Being there with them will change the way a child interprets what they’re watching.

Keep the lines of communication open so they feel comfortable coming to you and asking questions about something they saw or heard if they feel the need.

Speaking of things they might see, remember that companies heavily market many products specifically to young audiences. Explain to your children what commercials and advertisements are. Tell them that they are shown to try and convince viewers they want things that they might not need, and are simply trying to get people to spend more money.

Making the transition
It’s a reality for today’s busy parents that TV shows, a DVD or gaming device provide quick and easy ways to occupy kids when we’re trying to finish dinner, check our email or simply relax. So perhaps the biggest challenge is changing how WE view screen time—and the alternatives.

It’s up to parents to set the tone for screen time in a family. And the less screen time, it seems, the better. So cut the screen time for your kids and you’ll be opening whole new hours every day when they have a chance to be creative, use their imagination and get active—not to mention spend more time with you.

This is a tall order for many parents—and can be a difficult idea for many of today’s “plugged in” kids to swallow. Start slowly, and be sure to offer lots of positive alternatives. If your preschooler usually watches an hour of TV while you cook dinner, set up a kitchen play station with cups, bowls and spoons where they can “cook” or ask them to set the table while you work at the stove. If your teenager usually watches a marathon of teenage soap operas on the weekend, watch just one episode together and then head outside for a walk together—a perfect opportunity to discuss topics in the show or simply talk about your week.

Taking the time now to set limits and change the way your family views screen time can make a huge impact on your children as well as your family unit as a whole, placing the emphasis on more positive activities and time together rather than time alone in front of a screen. Take some simple steps to start helping your kids unplug today, and you’ll see them get more connected to the positive things in their life—especially their own health, wellbeing and connection with their family.

Remember, all aspects of parenting can be tough, but finding help doesn’t have to be. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!