What Are the Effects of Too Much Screen Time?

A Henry Ford Health physician discusses digital devices' impact on kids' development and sleep, and offers parents advice.

Parents and caregivers should take a moment to consider these two questions:

  1. How much time each day does your child or teen spend using digital devices?
  2. Is there a TV or an internet-connected electronic device in your child’s bedroom?

Pediatricians commonly ask parents about the amount of out-of-school screen time spent with electronic devices, including gadgets like computers and smartphones, as well as television viewing time.

Answers to the two questions above provide important clues to doctors about your child’s sleep and health habits.

A healthier approach to screens

“We’re living in a distracted world,” says pediatrician Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D., who worked with Henry Ford Health’s LiveWell.

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found when parents limit the type and amount of time kids spend on screens, kids get more sleep, do better in school, behave better and reap other health benefits.

The researchers recommended that doctors talk with parents about setting limits and actively monitoring media use. This may include talking with your kids about media content and providing viewing guidance. Watching TV as a family can also offer helpful opportunities to talk and explore what you’re watching — and why.

Leatherwood adds that Henry Ford doctors encourage a “5-2-1-0” approach to developing healthy habits. She explains that this means eating 5 fruits and vegetables each day, limiting screen time to 2 hours daily, getting 1 hour of physical activity every day and 0 sweetened drinks.

The negative impacts of too much screen time

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media. Older children and teens spend more than 11 hours per day.

“Spending more screen time means getting less physical activity and less time sleeping,” says Leatherwood. She also notes that there is a tendency towards less social interaction and can limit the ability to have appropriate discussions.

“It’s important to understand social interaction,” Leatherwood says. She notes that many children today make decreased eye contact and have a decreased ability to engage in discussions. “It takes a little more than 140 characters to have a conversation.”

Leatherwood adds that several studies have shown that exposure to light, including the light from TVs or computer screens affects the ability to fall asleep and achieve deep sleep.

How screen time affects sleep

According to the National Sleep Foundation, not getting enough good quality sleep can limit the ability to learn, listen, concentrate and solve problems.

“Often, when teens have digital devices in their room, they stay up late chatting (or browsing) and are not getting good quality sleep.” Leatherwood adds that some teens may go to bed at an early time, but awaken during the night to use media, also stealing time from quality sleep.

“What we’re seeing, especially with teens not getting enough sleep, is a subtle decline in attention span.” Leatherwood says this may lead to decreased attention to detail and show up in difficulties with math or reading comprehension. Parents should put limits on electronic use, especially in the evening — and set an example with their own digital behavior, too.

The number of hours of sleep needed vary with age, and may differ with individual children, but the National Institutes of Health gives the following minimum sleep guidelines: newborns 16-18 hours, preschoolers 11-12 hours, school-age kids at least 10 hours, teens 9-10 hours and adults 7-8 hours.

Leatherwood says that adults who try to get by on six hours of sleep may notice the same ill effects. “Over time, being sleep deprived can affect your mood, relationships and work performance,” she adds.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Stacy Leatherwood Cannon or another Henry Ford doctor, visit henryford.com.

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