About this time every spring, parents and children across the country take part in a healthy challenge. They pledge to step away from entertainment found on televisions, hand-held devices, and computer screens--and rediscover the joys of entertaining themselves. They play board games, read out loud, take walks, or cook a family meal together. They agree to be screen-free for one week.
This year's Screen-Free Week runs April 29 through May 5, but the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (which organizes the annual event) hopes the effects of the week will last year-round.
As a pediatrician at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Richmond who works on combating pediatric obesity, and as a mother of four children, I'm a strong supporter of Screen-Free Week. I know the amount of time our children spend in front of digital screens has increased tremendously over the years, and it's harming their health in many ways. I also think it's stealing a precious resource: the chance for children to be bored, and then dream up creative ways to have fun.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has compiled an eye-opening list of research statistics on screen time and children.
Why we care
Research also shows that babies and preschoolers who spend time in front of a screen spend less time interacting with their parents and less time in creative play -- activities that are essential for learning and development. Studies show that screen time for children under 3 is linked to language delays.
For older children, screen time not only exposes them to a slew of fast food and snack food ads, it replaces time that used to be spent running around and playing. So it's not surprising that studies find screen time is an important risk factor in childhood obesity. According to one study, for each hour of television viewing per day, children consume an additional 167 calories on average. That's a little more than the calories found in a 1-ounce bag of cheese puffs.
On the positive side, research also finds that children who spend less time watching television early on tend to do better in school, have a healthier diet, and be more physically active. Because Kaiser Permanente wants to help keep your child as healthy as possible, we recommend that parents and guardians limit screen time for children to no more than one to two hours a day, with no screen time for children under age 3. And we recommend that parents keep televisions and other screens out of their children's bedrooms.
Get ready to go screen-free
Screen-Free Week is a great opportunity to get a taste of life away from the screen. But as a parent, I caution you, it's best to go into the week prepared. Start by committing to lead by example, and then sit down with your family and make a list of things you might do to entertain yourselves. You could check out books or CDs from the library, rediscover card games, launch a lemonade stand, take a hike, or introduce your children to the joy of flying a kite.
Even if you can't manage being 100-percent screen-free, I challenge you and your family to step out of your comfort zone and give it a try. It might open your eyes to the realization that good things can come from taking a break from our screens.
To learn more about Screen-Free Week go to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood website at www.commercialfreechildhood.org/screenfreeweek.
Margaret Desler, MD, is a pediatrician at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Richmond.