Television and computers can be bad for your health. In fact, for every two hours spent staring at screens each day, your risk of developing type II diabetes grows by 20 percent, and your risk of heart disease rises 15 percent, says the American Medical Association.
Screen time used to mean together time. Families and friends watched a show or event together, gathered around one TV or movie screen.
Smart devices and portable screens have changed that. In the past decade, shared TV viewing has declined – it was down six hours a month in 2014 compared to 2013 – while solo use of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets has grown.
Today, teens spend nine hours a day on entertainment media use, and American adults average more than 10 hours a day with a screen.
“TV is no longer even TV: It’s now a screen,” says Tessa Jolls, president and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy. “The modes of delivery have expanded exponentially in terms of what we view, how we interact with that viewing, and how we produce materials to be viewed.”
For those who study families and screens, this increasing consumption is troubling. “There’s no question that the structure of how we interact with screens and the on-demand phenomenon has created a ‘now’ generation,” says Don Shifrin, M.D., FAAP, clinical professor pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine.
“There’s little patience for delayed gratification by the very young, and that’s trickled upward – teens that don’t call anyone because they have to punch in numbers and wait for the connection. For them, it’s easier and quicker to just text.”
Decades ago, family downtime – what Shifrin calls “1.0,” was spent doing puzzles, reading and playing music. From there, households moved to 2.0 – the radio – then 3.0, or shared TV watching.
Today’s use of personal devices has led to family time 4.0, creating distracted and disconnected families. “We each take our screens with us, and are involved with our own devices, not sharing family moments,” says Shifrin.
“We’ve all seen this in restaurants where families each are preoccupied with their individual screens. When you spend this much time on something, there has to be something else you’re not spending time on.”
Experts also see a move from face-to-face interactions and connections – emotional, mental and social. “There is a profound shift from the physical world toward the online one,” says Jolls.
“We have to step back and think about the impact on our everyday lives. If you’re unable to invest the time on education and learning because you’re so busy playing video games, that impacts your ability to be human and conduct life in a healthy and happy way.”
Obesity, behavior issues, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, attention disorders, sleep problems, reduced activity, risk-taking behavior – these are all potential consequences of increased screen time for families. And if parents are too devoted to their screens, their children may be too.
“Parents are the windows that youngsters look through,” says Shifrin. “They are the curators of experiences – they’re in the memory business. There’s simply no substitute for time, and only so many hours in the day.”
Healthier family screen habits
Fortunately, families can cut down on dependence on screens. Here are some tips from the experts:
- Establish screen-free zones, such as in the bedroom and at the dinner table.
- Talk about and limit content. The messages your kids get from their screens influence their attitudes and behaviors. “When parents talk to their kids about media, children start learning what’s appropriate and what's not,” says Jolls.
- Insert activity into screen time. Use commercials to get up and move, or make screens a one-for-one trade: One minute of screen for one minute of outside time.
- Create regular family activities that don’t involve screens. “Have digital-free nights or weekends, or collect cell phones before meals,” says Shifrin. “We can send a message to children that it’s not screens that are most important to our lives, it’s people.”
Get off your couch and go to hap.org/activetvtime for more ideas to make your TV time active time! You can find more ideas for building healthy family habits at hap.org/5210.