Screen time & kids: How to find balance

Getting your kids to turn off SpongeBob at dinner time can lead to a full-fledged, Three Mile Island meltdown, snot bubbles and all. It seems that even prying them away from something semi-educational on TV can be a chore.


The screens we use every day can be great learning tools for kids, but experts advise that parents proceed with caution. The Mayo Clinic links too much screen time among kids to child obesity, irregular sleep, behavioral problems and poor academic performance. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit all screen time -- including video games, computer games, TV and movies -- to 1 to 2 hours per day. This might seem extreme, however, considering how much time adults spend zoning out to The Real Housewives and Downton Abbey.

But there are ways to maintain that delicate balance, using technology to help your kids learn while avoiding screen time overload.

Limiting technology without cutting it entirely

"We live in a world of technology," says Dr. Deb Moberly, an associate professor within the Early Childhood Division of Teaching and Learning department at the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL). "The question isn't should we be using this technological equipment, but how long and in what ways are the best uses of it for young children."

Online education is one of the ways technology has been a valuable learning tool for kids in grades K-6. Online elementary schools can help enrich school for fast-learning kids or serve students in rural communities. "The use of online schools and learning offers the older school-age child or adolescent another type of educational opportunity," Dr. Moberly says. However, he also notes, "Caution should be used in selection of an online learning experience, making sure that it's from an accredited school."

Getting online students outside

Of all the ways that parents can support their online learner, getting them outside for a break might be the most important. "At the end of the day, I notice immediately if my children haven't had play time outside," says Rebecca P. Cohen, author of the parenting book 15 Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with Your Kids. "They are fidgety and have trouble sitting still to focus on their homework."

While working through an assignment online isn't the same thing as vegging out in front of Toy Story 3, parents should still be wary of how much time their children spend on online coursework. As you put together questions to ask before enrolling in online education, inquire as to how the school balances screen time. Schools might have outdoor assignments, offline workbooks or other tools that keep kids from soaking in too much of the computer screen's artificial light. "I recommend educators consider more fifteen minute, hands-on outdoor lessons in the curriculum," Rebecca notes.

Practice quality, not quantity in screen time

When it's time to learn, keep your eye on how your child responds to prompts from the online school. "Matching the child's developmental level to the software or application is critical," Dr. Moberly says. "Many media specialists and teachers take on this role for using computers in schools."

Once you unplug the computer, you should have an alternative plan. A game of kickball, a scavenger hunt or good ol' hide-and-seek can keep kids running, jumping and otherwise occupied. "Parents and teachers have a responsibility to make sure children are getting time outside," Rebecca says. Balancing your time in online classesis no easy task, but with a little thoughtful action, it's possible to make every screen your child sees a meaningful one.

Screen-balancing tips from Rebecca & Dr. Deb

  1. Maximize their time away from screens by getting your kids outdoors. "The outdoors is a natural classroom that engages children's curiosity and desire to learn," Rebecca says.
  1. Make your offline time count with fun activities that get everyone active. "Family time can be the bright spot in the day," says Dr. Deb.
  1. Add to an online curriculum with trips to the zoo or outdoor lessons about local plants and animals. "Outdoor lessons provide opportunities for all types of learners to relate to and retain information," Rebecca says.
  1. Whether it's education or entertainment, keep a close eye on the material your child views. "Parents have a responsibility to view content and restrict usage," says Dr. Deb.

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