Meaghan O’Keeffe, RN, BSN, is a mother, writer and nurse. She worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for nearly a decade, in both the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit and the Pre-op Clinic. She is a regular contributor to Thriving.
Misery loves company, as the saying goes. Swap out “misery” for “happiness” and you’ve got a much better outcome. Happier kids create happier parents.
So, what if I told you that by making just one small change, you could have a child who is happier, healthier, more relaxed and more connected with those around them?
“What is it?” you ask, on the edge of your seat. “What’s the secret?”
“All you need to do…”
“Yes?” you say, your eyes bright and encouraging.
“…is limit television and screen time.”
Did I already lose you?
Every parent has heard more than once that television should be limited to a maximum of two hours per day. We nod and agree with our pediatricians and say, “Of course, no more than two hours.” But most of us are lying—at least part of the time.
Knowing that television should be dosed sparingly and actually following through with that recommendation are two different things. The kids are tired after a long day; they’re crying and whining about everything. Or if they’re older, they may be rolling their eyes, hurling insults and stomping to their rooms. Against your better judgment, you turn on the TV or you hand over the video games. One show or game leads to another and…before you know it, you’ve surpassed your two-hour max. And then some.
How can we make limiting television and screen time less challenging?
By thinking about what we, the parents, can get out of it.
Sometimes we need a little motivation to start and sustain good habits. We need a more immediate reward. We need to know, “What’s in it for me?” Because if you ask me, when my kids are at each other’s throats all day long, turning the TV on, not off, seems like my best option. But it isn’t. It may be the most instantly gratifying option, but it won’t keep me happy. Not in the long run.
Remember how you thought that once you made it through your child’s newborn period they would sleep fitfully, then rise and shine at a normal hour? But that never quite happened. And you’re still sleep-deprived years later. Well, length of television time could have something to do with it. In this recent Pediatrics study, increased amounts of screen time were found to be associated with decreased duration of sleep. In fact, each additional hour of television watching may cost you a 7-minute decrease in sleep duration. Not only are my children better behaved when they’re well-rested, but I am too. Most of us will do anything to ensure more sleep for Mom or Dad, even turning off the TV.
Another benefit associated with decreased media usage is an overall healthier weight. In a study that examined the relationship between parental media monitoring and body mass index (BMI), researchers found that parental monitoring of a child’s activities, including media time and general media exposure, was associated with a lower BMI in middle childhood. Why is this? There are likely a number of factors. Kids who watch less television tend to be more active, they’re less likely to encounter an over-exposure of food advertisements, and if they’re sleeping better, that, too, can have an effect on overall physical health. If your child is at a healthier weight, they’re also at lower risk for self-esteem struggles, depression and chronic disease, such as Type II Diabetes.
The benefits don’t end there. A child who watches less television during their early years is likely to have more advanced speech than those who spend more time in front of the tube. Some research shows that children with limited exposure to television from age 1 to 3 are less likely to demonstrate attentional problems by age 7. For parents of teens, one study found that adolescents who spent less time with television and computers were more engaged with parents and their peers.
If you’re a well-intentioned parent who falls into the TV trap on a regular basis, don’t despair. Focusing on some of these tangible benefits may help you make a different choice from time to time. Simply setting some limits may be enough to curb any potentially harmful, excessive media usage. Try starting with some of these suggestions.
- Remove televisions from bedrooms (23 percent of children have a television in their rooms by age 7).
- Turn the TV off at meals or when no one seems to be paying attention to what’s on.
- Set a kitchen timer for TV and other screen time to increase your awareness about how much your family is actually watching.
- Make the hour before bed a no TV time zone.