A few tips for reducing screen time

  • Apr. 17, 2011 5:00 p.m.

As the coordinator of the North Okanagan Early Childhood Development Coalition, I have been working for the past year on a Screen Smart Public Awareness Initiative.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to provide this column for parents and care providers of young children to help caring adults to understand the critical issues related to the overuse of screen time such as television, computers, video games and hand-held electronic devices.

Increasingly, children are spending more time watching screens and less time in active physical play or interacting with their families and friends. Research has shown that young children are watching an average of 7.5 hours per day of different screens. We are seeing an increase in childhood obesity and diabetes and a decrease in physical fitness. Children are often exposed to inappropriate violence and questionable advertising to which they are particularly vulnerable. We also know that almost one out of three children in B.C. enters kindergarten not ready to learn and vulnerable to poor outcomes in school and in life. Too much screen time affects children’s oral language development. A poor vocabulary at age three is often a predictor of vulnerability at kindergarten entry, poor reading skills in Grade 3 and lack of high school completion. On the other hand, we live in a society where good skills with technology are an asset in the workplace. My goal with this column is to caution parents about the dangers of too much or inappropriate screen time, but also to help you to find alternatives and a balance in the use of technology.

The week of April 18-24 has been designated as Screen-Free Week. Why not take the challenge of a week with no TV, computers  or video games? The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends no screen time at all for children under two, one hour per day for children two to six, and no more than two hours per day for older children. By taking the challenge, your family can start to find other activities that are healthy and fun. The best way to start is to be a good role model. As adults, can you live without your screens for a week? Families that have taken this challenge find that it is difficult at first, but then they gradually start reading more, talking more and playing more. Check out the website www.commercialfreechildhood.org. Make sure you do this before Screen-Free Week starts! I would also like to suggest the book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. In this book he talks about “Nature Deficit Disorder,” in which he describes the negative impact of disconnecting from nature.

For the first week, make a commitment to getting some exercise with your children every day. It can be as simple as turning on some music and dancing, going for a walk, or playing ball in the backyard. Another simple suggestion is to have dinner with the family every night for a week. Children who eat dinner with their families even twice a week have been shown to have better grades and social skills. I have been recommending a book called The Family Dinner by Laurie David. There is also a website at www.thefamilydinnerbook.com. It has recipes, but also many suggestions for how to get your family more engaged in conversation, manners, and nutritious eating at the dinner table. During the Screen-Free Week, talk to your family about setting some limits on screen time. Cris Rowan, author of Virtual Child and an expert on the impact of screen time on children, suggests that you balance the use of screens and technology by making a rule that every 20-30 minutes of screen time must be balanced with 20-30 minutes of physical activity. She also suggests that you have a basket to deposit cell phones and other hand-held devices in when older children come to the dinner table. Have a games night once a week with board games, or read a chapter book each night to the whole family after dinner.

Over the upcoming months, I will be providing a year’s worth of Screen-Free Activities in this column to help you to “Unplug and Play.” I hope you will try them out!

Lynne Reside is the North Okanagan Early Childhood Development Coalition.