screens

Screen time overload: It's not all bad news

July 9, 2014 at 10:09 AM ET

Nearly three quarters of kids aged 12 to 15 spend more than two hours a day in front of a computer or TV screen, according to a new government report.

That means that the vast majority of kids are exceeding the amount of screen time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics media guidelines released in 2013.

NBC News asked Dr. Dimitri Christakis, George Adkins Professor at the University of Washington and director of the university’s Center for Child Health, Behavior & Development and co-author of the AAP’s guidelines, to help put the new report in perspective.

Image: A boy looks up from playing a videogame.
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A boy looks up from playing a videogame.

Q: How concerned should we be about this new report?

A: First of all, I think there are problems with the new report. No. 1, it probably overestimates and underestimates screen time since it didn’t include tablets and smartphones, which children are using more and more. The problem is we’ve gotten to the stage where screen time is very difficult to measure since everybody has a screen in their pocket, and we’re often using more than one screen at once. No. 2, they don’t differentiate between time spent using these devices constructively. You have to differentiate between screen time that is school-related versus for entertainment. If the kid is reading a book on a Kindle or reading the Encyclopedia Britannica online, should that be counted as screen time? It’s certainly not in the category of "Grand Theft Auto."

Q: So, how should we evaluate what our kids are doing?

A: It’s much more complicated now than when I was growing up when there was TV or no TV, or good TV and bad TV. The short answer is that parents shouldn’t only focus on the amount of screen time, but on the content and quality of it.

Parents might instead ask, what is being displaced by the screen time. What alternative activity might their children be engaged in?

Nothing bothers me more as a pediatrician, and frankly as a parent, as when I see a family out to dinner and everyone is on a device. They’re missing out on a very important opportunity to engage each other in person.

Q: Is there a set number of hours of screen time by age?

A: The issue comes down to quality time. Period. There are a certain number of hours of unstructured time, which varies by age. It becomes concerning when the percentage of free time spent in front of a screen is surpassing other activities, such as outdoor play, conversation, reading for pleasure.

Q: You mentioned content. Could you be more specific?

A: If your kid is spending an hour and a half doing homework on the computer and then texting friends for half an hour, I’d say there is nothing wrong with that. The digital culture is not going away. The challenge is figuring out ways to make it harmless, if not actually beneficial.

Q: Which is better: TV or computer games?

A: That’s not a simple question. If the TV time is spent watching a National Geographic special on the earth or a Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, that’s very different from watching a horror movie. Similarly, "Grand Theft Auto" isn’t the same as "Tetris" or "Minecraft." "Grand Theft Auto" not only doesn’t require thinking, it also is violent. You want games that make kids think.

What I always tell parents is that they need to take an active role in determining their child’s screen time. It’s similar to the time they spend strategically thinking about what kinds of foods they want in their kid’s diet and in what proportions. And those proportions change as children age.

Q: OK, so while we all want our kids consuming a steady diet of educational TV, it’s pretty unrealistic to expect them to completely skip all the other stuff. Is there any way to mitigate the impact of the mind-numbing fluff?

A: You can watch it with them and use it to segue into conversations about various topics. You can ask what your kids think about what happened and you can tell them what you think. You can use it as an opportunity to bring up topics like drinking and driving and underage sex, instead of bringing these things up out of the blue. The program can give the context to have those conversations.

Q: The new report emphasizes the physical harms that result from too much time sitting in front of a screen, like high blood pressure and obesity. Have smartphones and video ruined our kids’ health?

A: It’s a common misconception that children would rather watch TV and play video games rather than spend time outside. They’re spending time in front of the screen because they’re kept inside. And that’s because parents feel an exaggerated sense of danger about the outdoors.

I live in what is considered to be an incredibly safe neighborhood. There are lots of children but they are not allowed outside unsupervised. It’s not like when I grew up, and frankly, my neighborhood was not as safe as the one I live in now.

There’s no question in my mind that parents are worried, and it’s made worse by the AMBER Alerts, which we have in Seattle about once a week. It creates a mistaken impression of how unsafe our world is. But most abductions are done by family members. Keeping kids indoors doesn’t keep kids safe from that.

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