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As parents, we see video games, computers and television occupying far too much of children’s time. And with research pointing out the negative effects of too much screen time – a sedentary lifestyle, lack of interest in schoolwork, reduced social interaction, even violent behavior – it’s no wonder we’re concerned.
“In this day there is virtually an invasion into the home of media – and very little we can do about it,” says Michael Manos, PhD, Head of the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. “Parents are rightfully concerned about the effects of it and what their children are exposed to.”
Entirely eliminating media from a child’s life is unrealistic. But because you can't control it completely, Dr. Manos says, the best thing to do is put parameters around it.
Limit recreational screen time
In general, Dr. Manos says, children from about ages 3 to 10 should be limited to one hour of screen time a day (including video games, the computer and TV) for anything other than schoolwork.
He explains that when children are very young, their primary engagement should be with their parents, adding, “there are absolutely no benefits to a child being propped in front of a television.” In fact, the American Psychological Association recommends that from birth until 3 years of age, a child’s exposure to television should be extremely limited.
Beyond age 10, Dr. Manos admits that limits may be tough to enforce. Although you may be able to control the hours of screen time at home, children will be going to their friends’ homes, where there may be no such limits.
Video games: A judgment call
Not all video games are bad, says Dr. Manos; many can be educational. However, most video games provide an exciting alternate reality that puts the gamer into a highly aroused state. The danger with this highly aroused state is that other activities such as schoolwork and chores, in contrast, then seem tame and boring. When children spend too much time playing video games, they may become apathetic about these ordinary activities.
Violent video games, however, are another matter. “There is a relationship between violent video games and violent and aggressive behavior,” Dr. Manos says. “Observing violent behavior increases the propensity for some children to imitate aggressive or violent behavior.”
Violent games have been shown to increase the gamer’s heart rate and put him or her into an aroused state in which aggressive emotions are increased, making it more likely that he or she will act in an aggressive way.
“Gamers of violent video games are no longer just watching violence – like an alien being killed – now they themselves are the killers,” he says. He notes that some games even reward players for committing crimes and killing people.
Use screen time as a reward
It’s always more difficult to withhold computer and television time from a child as punishment than it is to provide access to it based on appropriate behavior.
“Kids want to watch TV, and parents don’t want to fight,” Dr. Manos says.
But the key is to start young and have children “earn” access to screen time by engaging in schoolwork, social activities and chores around the house. “Rather than trying to pry it away from them, making the parent the punishing agent, children become responsible themselves for access to it,” he concludes.