September 12, 2018
Central Massacusetts Health

Doctors warn of dangers of screen time for kids

Photo/Courtesy
Emma Mello, a 6-year-old in Hudson, reads her favorite book. Her mother, Jackie, ensures her children don't spend too much time in front of a screen each day.

Jackie Mello, a nurse who works with newborns at UMass Memorial Medical Center, is always conscious of how much time her two young kids have in front of an electronic device each day. Mello, a Hudson resident, does not keep strict trime limits on her 6-year-old daughter, Emma, and 3-year-old son, Mason.

But Mello says she keeps screen time to when needed in a pinch and makes sure it's an educational game or a full-length movie that keeps their attention.

"I'm fortunate in that my kids like to be active and like to be outside," Mello said. Otherwise, she added, they'll become fixated on whatever game or video is in front of them.

"They turn into zombies when they do," she said.

Mello isn't the only one worried about what effect might be had on children's development as a result of how much time is spent each day in front of a screen.

Doctors say too much time looking at screens can harm brain development, contribute to a inactive lifestyle, and lead to delayed or poor reading skills.

"It's definitely something that should be on every parent's mind," said Dr. Jennifer LaBonte, who practices family medicine at the Saint Vincent Medical Group in Worcester. "Because digital media is around us all the time."

Hours a day in front of a device

Unlike with past generations of kids who might sit in front of a TV for a few hours a day, it's harder for today's parents to keep track of how much screen time their children have, especially once they're older and have their own phones. But two reports from the nonprofit Common Sense Media give an idea of just how many hours children are spending in front of screens.

Kids up to age 8 were found in a study last year by Common Sense Media to spend more than two hours a day in front of a screen, and nearly three hours for those between 5 and 8. Lower-income homes had even higher numbers.

A 2015 study by the nonprofit said that for teens, the average daily screen time was six hours and 40 minutes.

"Video games, YouTube, social media and television are all incredible addictive," said Stephany Godfrey, a family medicine doctor at Nashoba Family Medicine in Groton.

Graphics have been scientifically researched to have appealing technology that makes they far more stimulating to the brain than cartoons or early video games did 30 years ago, Godfrey added.

"I have absolutely seen children who are glued to a device, either watching or playing a game, who when it is taken away have literal meltdowns," she said.

Potential harmful effects

Whether parents are just looking to keep their child busy while waiting for an appointment or quiet during dinner out at a restaurant, studies have found many harmful effects from looking at a screen for so much time.

A study last year published in the peer-reviewed journal Acta Paediatrica found higher brain connectivity during periods when children age 8 to 12 were reading, versus lower levels when they were watching a screen.

A released in July in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association said that 2,500 teens who were tracked over two years found what researchers called a significant association between higher amounts of screen time and development of ADHD. More research is needed to find whether there is causation between the two, the authors said.

Just this month, the American Heart Association issued a report encouraging limits on screen time, calling trends of increased use concerning and a contributor to sedentary lifestyles.

A greater awareness

Even technology companies are getting in on the act. This summer, Apple included tools in its new operating system to limit screen time by letting users know how many minutes, or hours, they've spent actively on their phones. Google offers details of daily use, and Instagram tells users "you're all caught up" when they've viewed all recent posts on their feed.

Dr. Mary Ellen Dugan, a pediatric doctor for Southboro Medical Group, cautioned that studies are still relatively unsettled on screen-time effects because the phenomenon is still so new. Yet parents can be sure that reading a book will always be a better use of time than anything on a device, she said.

"What's frightening to me is it's common in our office at even a few months old, a parent will immediately go for a phone" in trying to calm down their child," Dugan said.

"You put a phone in front of a baby, and the kid will calm down. They didn't calm down for mom and they didn't calm down for dad, but they calm down in front of the phone," she said. "To me, that's frightening. It just gets a baby's attention and makes them tune out whatever else is going on in a room."

Mello, the Hudson mom, said doctors have talked to her children about the importance of not just sitting still in the house during free time.

"They try to put the bug into their ears about getting outside and playing," she said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents don't allow any screen time for those under 18 months.

"For under 2," LaBonte said, "having a lot of screen time may interfere with cognitive development and social and emotional skills that they would normally get from human face-to-face interaction."

From age 2 to 5, children should have only up to an hour per day, the American Academy of Pediatrics says. The academy also recommends daily limits for older age groups, and media-free times or locations.

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