Screen time in summer: Why limiting your child’s screen time could be the best thing for their health

In summer, and especially on holiday weekends, kids have more time to spend on screens. But doctors say this can lead to mental and physical problems.

“We have a whole generation of kids who are used to screens,” said Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a clinical psychologist with Kaiser Permanente’s Mid-Atlantic Permanente Group.

Patton-Smith says gone are the days when playing outside in the warmer months was the first — or in sometimes even the second — option for entertainment when school let out.

“There are risks with regard to excessive use of screens,” she explained. “The effect of blue light can have issues with behavior, can impact sleep.”

But Patton Smith also says the issue is very nuanced in 2024, especially since screens are used a lot for education and learning.

“Not all screens are bad,” she told WTOP. “It’s how we’re using them, and how often we’re using them.”

“As a parent and caregiver, we need to look at ways to limit screen time, be aware of screen time, and be open about the challenges of screen time, and not just completely eliminate it,” she reflected.

Patton-Smith says a good benchmark to use as your base should be the guidelines set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics when it comes to screen time. But those stats may shock you.

“For kids ages 0-2 — no screens,” Patton-Smith said. “Two to 5, one hour or less, and that is interaction with the parent in that process.”

The guidelines also specify kids ages 5 to 17 should only be on screens two hours or less outside of school learning.

Of course, Patton-Smith says she knows many — maybe even the majority of — kids are consuming screens in quantities of time well above the established guidelines.

That’s why she says weaning off screens, almost like a rehab process, is the best approach.

“It works with increments of usually 30 minutes decreasing to a certain goal — that has been shared with the kid,” Patton-Smith said.

She says it may take some effort, and there may be some tantrums or resentment in the short term, but the benefits to your child in the long run will be well worth the effort. ​

Patton-Smith explained that it’s proven screen time can be harmful for children’s brain development. Specifically, screens can alter the prefrontal cortex development, which can impact executive functioning

Excess phone or tablet use, gaming, etc., can alter moods and behavior, aggression and irritability.

She also says excess screen use actually depletes dopamine levels, literally zapping kids’ happiness. This occurs when dopamine receptors are overloaded from screen use, and your brain literally can’t produce any more dopamine.

Finally, excessive screen use can decrease attention span and focus in kids. This can lead to disorders like ADHD, which can then spiral into anxiety and depression.

So what’s the solution here?

“You can’t suddenly take screens away cold turkey, or as a punishment,” Patton-Smith said. “That can breed resentment. Instead, use screens a reward system; ‘Go play outside, or solve this puzzle, or help your sibling, and then you can earn 30 minutes of screen time.'”

She also says that establishing screen-free times as a family is key.

“No screens at the dinner table,” she said, offering up one key example. “That should be a time for family, a time for talking, a time to reconnect.”

Patton-Smith says organizing family activities away from screens can also naturally help eliminate excess time on them.

“Go for a walk, have a board game night, things like that,” she said.

And finally, she says parents need to monitor things closely, and practice what they preach.

“I always tell parents that kids learn a lot more from observing than listening, so you need to limit your own device usage too,” Patton-Smith explained. “I know families that have ‘screen-free’ households, and I don’t think that’s the answer, especially because screens are used so much in the classroom nowadays. But certainly, being honest with ourselves and leading by example is the best way to help our children thrive.”

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Matt Kaufax

If there's an off-the-beaten-path type of attraction, person, or phenomenon in the DC area that you think more people should know about, Matt is your guy. As the features reporter for WTOP, he's always on the hunt for stories that provide a unique local flavor—a slice of life if you will.

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