After spending so much time in front of screens throughout the pandemic, many children may overdo their daily screen time, which can lead to different health issues. A Baylor College of Medicine dietitian explains the risks of excess screen time while mapping out a routine for children to cut back on screens throughout the school year.
Ample screen time may lead to a sedentary lifestyle. Children who are always seated in front of a screen can be less active, leading to weight gain.
“If kids aren’t moving, they might have an increased risk of gaining weight,” said Alicia Beltran, research dietitian at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor and Texas Children’s Hospital. “Being overweight or obese can lead to chronic diseases, such as diabetes or increased blood pressure. Encourage kids to take breaks from the screen. Parents need to set the example by taking a break from it as well.”
To stay healthy and focused throughout the school year, implement a routine that includes breaks from the screen, physical activity and family time.
Before school, have your child step outside briefly to be exposed to natural light. A few minutes outdoors will help the circadian rhythm to set the tone for a good night’s sleep. Kids can walk or run laps to increase their heart rate and start their day with energy.
Smart free time
If your child spends their school day at home virtually, their breaks should consist of smart free time. Instead of spending free time in front of the screen, take a break to go outside or do something different that doesn’t include a screen. Children who are in school virtually also should have a set time to eat their meals, so they avoid overeating or snacking throughout the day.
After school activities
Enroll children in extracurricular activities or sports, or encourage them to go outside to play and get exercise. While spending time outside, avoid activities that involve screen time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests turning off electronics 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. The stimulants of the blue light from electronics can cause difficulty with sleeping, so children need time to disconnect to rest their minds and sleep well to refuel their bodies. Encourage children to read a book before sleeping to rest their minds.
An inadequate sleep schedule also may increase the risk of weight gain.
Do not allow screens or electronics at the dinner table for children or adults. Mealtimes are sacred for families to engage with one another.
Active screen time
Once a week, set a time for active screen time with the family. Everyone gathers in front of the television as a family and chooses to watch something together. This is a better alternative to having children isolated in front of their screens and brings the family together.
Children also may gain weight if they are unaware of how much they eat or drink in front of their screens, increasing their calorie intake. The foods they consume can affect their overall health, so make sure they snack on fruits and vegetables in moderation and drink water. Avoid sugary and sports drinks.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for screen time vary among age groups:
- 0-18 months: limit screens to video calls only.
- 18-24 months: limit to watching short, educational programming with a parent or caregiver. There is no specific duration for this, but be present while in front of the screen to help them understand what they are watching.
- 2-5 years old: limit to one hour per day of quality programming. Parents or caregivers should watch with children to help them understand what they are watching while guiding them through the content.
- 6 years and older: no set time limit, but set consistent boundaries on screen usage.
Beltran emphasizes the importance of setting a routine and clear rules and limits on the screen media use, while explaining the importance of boundaries on digital media.
“Talk to your kids about boundaries of screen time. Get them involved in what is and is not allowed,” she said.