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LVHN Health Tips: Therapist talks about youth and screen time

Smartphone, tablet, computer and television screens are a significant part of our everyday life, but screen time also needs to be limited.

Claire Jepson, who has a doctorate in occupational therapy and works as a pediatric occupational therapist with Lehigh Valley Health Network, recently talked about reducing screen time for children and increasing functional play in an online series titled “Because They’re Kids.” The series is sponsored by the Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital.

The general recommendation for all children is to limit screen time to one to two hours per day, Jepson said. That being said, the standard was set before COVID-19 and at-home instruction occurred. There’s a difference between screen time for educational purposes and screen time for entertainment. For entertainment purposes, this is still a good rule of thumb.

“We want to limit its use for entertainment,” she said.

Jepson said it’s also important to try not to rely on screens as a distraction, time filler or calming strategy. There are negative outcomes associated with too much screen time, such as creating a sedentary behavior, increasing weight and body mass index, causing poor sleep and eating habits, eye strain and vision changes.

“Too much time spent in front of screens is also associated with poor cognitive, language, motor and social-emotional skill development,” she said, especially with little children.

“When we are spending too much time in front of screens and not engaged in functional play, that’s when we start to see these risk factors occur. The good news is there are positive outcomes associated with screen time.”

Screen time isn’t all bad. It can also give people an exposure to new ideas, information, people and groups. Parents do not need to worry about educational screen time as long as they arrange breaks between assignments presented online, encourage outdoor play, and limit daily entertainment screen time.

Jepson said the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

• Monitor screen time and limiting entertainment screen time.

• Get daily exercise, especially outside.

• Take breaks at least 10 minutes every hour or do the 20/20/20 rule, which is look away from the screen every 20 minutes and focus on an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. It gives the eyes some time to reset and refocus.

• Blink often to prevent dry eyes and eye strain.

• Position screens properly. Computer or tablet screens should be slightly below eye level and arms distance away. Use the 1/2/10 rule: smartphone, 1 foot away; computers and tablets, 2 feet away; and television screens, 10 feet away.

• Avoid glare from overhead lights and windows, and turn down the screen’s brightness.

• Get regular vision screenings.

• And turn screens off at least one hour before bed.

Too much time in front of a screen before bed time can change the way your child processes melatonin, Jepson said.

“All of that bright light and stimulation before bed can make it really hard to fall asleep and also to stay asleep. That changes the restful sleep that they get the rest of the night,” she said.

Some healthy ways to use screen time include:

• Use as an additive to a child’s day, not his or her primary source of play or learning activity.

• Focus on interactive apps and games with real-time feedback.

• Do cognitive activities, such as matching puzzles, sight words, math problems

• Use along with physical activities, such as exercise classes, imitation, dance routines and sing-alongs are good.

“One of the biggest keys to appropriate screen use is parental involvement,” Jepson said. “Whenever you’re able, co-view and co-play. Sit with your child as they’re watching the show or playing a game and talk with them about what they are seeing. Ask them who their favorite character is in the scene or what animals they see across the screen. This makes sure that the screen use is more functional and it gives them more of an opportunity to learn and to play.”

Jepson recommended making a family media plan. She said the American Academy of Pediatrics has a program online where a person can input information, such as the number of children in the family, their ages, grades, sports, extracurricular activities, and family activities. The program then produces customized tips for a family media plan.

The tips encompass ways to make screen time beneficial and appropriate, as well as screen free zones, screen free times, device curfews, and ways to choose and diversify media.

“It’s a really beneficial, personalized way to make sure you using screens and technology in a good way for your child,” she said.

The Family Media Plan can be found at https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx.