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-by Dr. Alan Laird

Growing up, this was a common admonishment from my parents. The reason for it was the assumption that sitting too close to the TV would harm your eyes. And while my parents were trying to look out for my health (or perhaps they were tired of my head being in the way for viewing the TV), the admonishment missed the mark. What they really should have said was, “Don’t sit in front of the TV for so long.” That concern has been borne out in many medical studies.

The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommends limiting screen time for young children. Those guidelines include: For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media except for video-chatting. For children 18 to 24 months of age, if digital media is used, make it high-quality programming, and watch it with them. For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing. For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media. The AAP also offers guidelines for school age children and adolescents. Limited time and monitoring is important for all ages.

Since we are talking about children, let’s ask a question they often do, “But why?” Beyond the self-evident answer of content (know what your kids are watching), it is also important to know who they are connecting with. We have all heard and probably know someone with a chilling story that began when screen time took a bad turn. For me growing up, screen time meant TV. Now it is not just TV, but computers, mobile tablets, smart phones and other electronic devices. There is a lot more to monitor than just the screen in the family room.

The more subtle concern is what is the screen time replacing? Since we tend to sit when we watch TV or use the computer, are we trading time when we would be active? Perhaps we are not interacting with others. Screen time can interfere with interpersonal relationships between family members. Think of the iconic picture of the father behind the evening paper who grunts at his children and wife. That is not a true picture of fathers, but you get my drift. So if we do limit our screen time, let’s make sure we replace it with something healthy like activity or interacting with each other.

And limitation of screen time isn’t just for children. We adults need to look at our screen time as well. Of course the content of what we are viewing is very important. Are we watching something that is uplifting, or something we would be ashamed to show others? Are we replacing time we should be active or interacting with our family with screen time activities? What may be equally important, is what behaviors are children are learning. A recent article by Dr. Jenny Radesky – a developmental behavioral pediatrician – reminds us that children often learned habits from their parents and adults around them. Mom and dad, grandpa and grandma, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, if we are spending lots of screen time with our TV, computer or smart phones; chances are the kids we influence will imitate that behavior. We need to consider the example we set as well as the guidelines we sent for children.

Once again that takes me back to my childhood. While I was sitting too close to the TV, I remember watching a public service announcement in 1967 (I looked it up). It started with the phrase, “Like father, like son.” It then showed a father and young son engaged in various activities like painting the house, washing the car, tossing a rock, etc. At each turn, the young boy imitated the father. When they took a break and dad took out his cigarettes, the boy reached over and grabbed the package of cigarettes as well. The phrase, “Like father, like son,” was again repeated. The message was clear. If we won’t quit smoking for ourselves, we should quit smoking for our kids. Fifty plus years later, it still seems like a good reminder. Set boundaries for your children, but make sure you’re acting wisely as well. Looking back on this article, I hope my wife doesn’t read it; I will have to stop binging on Netflix.

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