02/13/2013 02:33 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Can Too Much Screen Time Harm Your Child?

If you find it hard to tear your child away from the computer, smartphone or video game console, welcome to the club.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids between the ages of 8 and 18 consume more than 7 hours of entertainment media during a typical day. Factor in "media multitasking" (using more than one medium at a time) and that time ticks up to 10 hours and 45 minutes of daily consumption.

Hours spent staring at a screen may be detrimental if it cuts into family time, physical activity, real-world socializing and engaging in other important brain-developing activities. At the same time, some access to technology can provide skills that are necessary for a child to thrive in the 21st century.

So what's the right amount of media consumption for young people?

Unfortunately, there's a lot we don't know about how technology use among kids impacts future career and academic success, but here's what we do know.

The Negative Impact of Media Multitasking
If your child is texting with friends, listening to music, watching a show and trying to do her homework all at the same time, the reality is that she won't be doing any of those tasks particularly well, says David Bickham, Ph.D., a staff scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Children's Hospital Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Not only does your child focus less on her homework, but the constant "toggling back and forth" between activities means that she will be spending much more time channel shifting -- and the whole exercise will take much longer than if she just focused on each task sequentially.

The Solution: Teach your child that, when it comes to getting homework done, the TV should be off and the cell phone needs to be out of reach. She can enjoy screen time when her assignment is complete.

Caroline Knorr, a parenting editor at Common Sense Media, also suggests walking the walk yourself -- don't ask questions about your child's day while staring at your smartphone.

Why Screen Time Before Bed Is Bad
Electronics are disruptive to sleep, explains Knorr, and restful shut-eye is important for school success. "Teachers are reporting that kids are coming in and saying that they are not getting enough sleep, so we have a suspicion that they are staying up late [with media] or sleeping with the phone under their pillow," she says.

The Solution: Turn off all electronic devices 30 to 60 minutes prior to bedtime. Bickham suggests even keeping televisions out of kids' bedrooms. "Establish healthy, positive media use at a young age, so they get healthy habits down. If they are not used to having a device while falling asleep or while doing homework, they're less likely to do it [as they get older]" he says, adding that keeping computers and televisions in a common area of the home also allows parents to have more control over the content.

Another great tip: Parents can set up a charging area in their bedrooms where all phones and laptops go at night, so kids won't be tempted to text with friends until the early morning hours.

The Under-Age-Two Rule
Although experts can't provide us with information on how much screen time is the "right" amount, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does discourage media usage before age 2, stating that screen time for this age group has "potentially negative effects and no known positive effects." They cite studies that have shown that children under two who watch more television or videos have expressive language delays.

"Kids' brains develop from social interaction and manipulating things in the real world, which you don't get from the screen," explains Bickham.

The Solution: Find alternatives to screen time whenever possible for young kids. Parents also need to be aware that watching their own shows while a child plays nearby still impacts learning by distracting them from play and preventing them from interacting more with adults.

This speaks to Bickham's recommendation for parents to be more active media users, rather than passively keeping the TV on all day. "Watch what you are going to watch, then shut it off when you're done," he says.

Educational Programming Can Be a Good Thing
Some media can be positive for children. For example, long-term studies conducted on educational television programming, such as Sesame Street, have shown that this type of show can get a child ready for school -- and provide for a positive long-term academic trajectory, says Bickham.

The Solution: There are many shows, apps, games and social media sites that offer learning potential for thinking and reasoning skills, logic skills, communication and social and emotional development -- all things that will benefit a child long-term. Most mass-produced video games today, Bickham says, are purely made to entertain, but games certainly have the potential to provide "really positive learning."

Although neither of our experts recommended avoiding media that isn't educational, the AAP does suggest keeping screen time to 1 to 2 hours a day, and zero for kids under two. Knorr suggests looking into time management tools that are available through such sites as Net Nanny and Safe Eyes. Bottom line: Helping your children make good choices when it comes to how to spend their screen time is an important way for parents to teach media mindfulness.

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