The Screen Time Rules You Really Should Enforce This Year

09/08/2014 10:59 am ET | Updated Sep 08, 2014
Aping Vision / STS via Getty Images

While parents grapple with how much screen time is too much for children, new research now supports their suspicions: An excess amount of time in front of screens is bad for kids.

The Learning Habit study, published this month in the American Journal of Family Therapy and in a book titled The Learning Habit, examined family routines in 46,000 U.S. homes of children in grades K-12 via an online survey. Conducted by a research team from Brown University School of Medicine, Brandeis University, Children's National Medical Center and New England Center for Pediatric Psychology, the three-year study worked with WebMD, The Huffington Post/AOL, The National PTA and Parents Magazine to assist with national outreach.

The key findings shed light on how all of these smartphones, tablets, televisions and computers are affecting kids:

Children feel the effects of screen time in all aspects of their lives.

After just 30 minutes of screen time a day, researchers saw that children's grades began a steady decline. After two hours of it, researchers observed a dramatic drop in grades, and after four hours a day, the average GPA fell an entire grade level. This effect was seen particularly in middle schoolers, who weren't able to achieve A's in mathematics or English language arts after four hours of screen time.

Even if more screen time led to more time spent on homework (many kids used computers and other devices to help complete homework assignments), children still suffered a decline in grades. Plus, all of that time spent consuming media led children to have trouble falling asleep -- those who spent four hours of screen time a day took an average of 20 minutes longer to fall asleep than children who had more limited screen time. More time on devices also led to increased social-emotional volatility in kids.

Many parents have inklings of these effects, Rebecca Jackson, co-author of The Learning Habit book, told The Huffington Post. However, there seems to be a "disconnect" between this generalized intuition and parents' own children.

"There's a difference between knowing something and suspecting something," Jackson said. "We are aware that the average American child spends eight hours in front of a screen, but we often don't associate those numbers with our own children. Those numbers tend to be about somebody else's child."

child computer

Despite what kids think, less screen time and more time doing chores makes them happier.

One thing that parents often overlook when it comes to screen time is grit, said Jackson. The researchers found that grit -- defined in the study as the ability to perform a strenuous or difficult task without giving up -- decreased as children's screen times increased. When children in the study had limited screen time and were given chores to do, they performed better academically, socially and emotionally. Household tasks, like laundry, cooking or taking out garbage, made children feel a sense of self-worth and responsibility.

"It's exciting because this is something that parents and educators can build," Jackson said. "They can develop it, and it is directly related to the amount of screen time, or media use, a child has."

Make sure kids aren't spending too much time on homework -- that's often screen time, too.

All work and no play isn't the answer, though. While 10 minutes of homework per grade in school was positively correlated with children's GPAs, more time than that spent doing homework showed nearly no benefits. (This is something researchers have seen in the past.)

Jackson said that excessive homework can even harm children, especially as "homework" becomes increasingly synonymous with "screen time," a trend that the researchers noticed. But since homework is still an important part of a child's routine, she also suggested that parents not make it a punitive activity.

"The goal for parents is to help our children have a balanced life," Jackson said. "It's not a child coming home and a parent having to enforce homework one night and then a child doesn't have homework another night so they're allowed to do all kinds of fun things. There should be a time for fun things every single night and a time for academics every single night. But none of those things are more important than any other."

phone

Your parenting style can factor in your kids' devices.

"This generation is so saturated by media that we actually needed a parenting style that gave parents a framework to manage these devices," Jackson said.

That parenting style is "empowerment parenting," according to the study. Researchers found that style to be more effective than traditional, disciplinary parenting styles, which focus on consequences for poor behavior. Empowerment parenting uses "thoughtful rules and effort-based praise to reward desired behavior," which can help develop social skills and the aforementioned grit, the study noted. The positive reinforcement empowerment parenting employs helped children manage their screen time and tended to result in higher grades, better sleep and social as well as emotional benefits.

By creating awareness about device use in the home through empowerment parenting, parents can set up routines and consistent guidelines surrounding screen time that are easy for children to follow, Jackson said.

"It's just like life," Jackson explained. "First we work and then we get paid. First we do our household chores and then we get the media use. Parents who are waking up in the morning and letting their children watch TV first thing before school are really missing the boat here."

Bottom line: All of that screen time is taking away from family time, which is crucial for healthy child development.

Luckily, Jackson and the researchers have an antidote to all of these screens: family time, which can include anything from family dinners to playing board games to walking the dog together. They found that the more time children spent doing these things, the less time they spent on their devices. Kids who spent more time with family had better socialization skills, focus and ability to handle emotions. They also had higher grades and an easier time falling asleep.

The best way to start in your own home, said Jackson, is to track your child's screen time for 24 hours, which will give you a hard number that you can then use to take action. Lessening screen time often starts by simply becoming aware of how much your child is actually engaged in media.

As for fitting family time into parents' increasingly busy schedules, Jackson suggests scheduling it "just like you would schedule a really important doctor's appointment." And don't get discouraged if you can't always make it home for a nightly family dinner. Family time encompasses a whole range of activities, and one-on-one time with your kid counts, too.

"It's really any time that you're unplugged and engaged with your child," Jackson said. "It's about having a conversation with them."

CONVERSATIONS