What occupies today's kids for an average of seven hours per day? The screens on computers, TVs and mobile devices. Children spend on average almost 49 hours per week with media. That's more time than they spend with their parents! Even some kids under age 2 watch one to two hours of TV per day.
Chances are your kids are in front of screens more than you think. Do they watch a show while getting dressed? How about while eating breakfast or waiting for the bus? Do they play video games or use a tablet before dinner? Ask your kids about this. What you learn might be surprising.
Reducing the amount of time your child or teen spends with media will have a positive lifestyle impact — even if eating habits do not otherwise change. Research suggests a 10-day "turn-off" period followed by a seven-hour weekly limit on screen time seems to help kids decrease their body mass index and body fat.
Try some of these pointers to help disconnect your child or teen from the screen:
- Remove media from the bedroom. Today, 71 percent of all kids ages 8 to 18 years have TVs in their rooms. In addition, 50 percent have cable or a video game player and 30 percent have a computer with Internet access in their bedrooms. Kids with a TV in their bedroom watch about 1½ hours more a day than kids who don't have one in their bedroom.
- Enjoy electronic-free meals. Make it a family rule to turn off the TV while eating and ensure everybody puts away their cellphones so you can focus on each other. Families that eat dinner together more often have better nutrient intake and health outcomes and kids tend to have better academic performance.
- Save TV for weekends. Record favorite weekday shows and save TV time for weekends. Watch shows as a family and fast-forward through commercials. Sit down with your kids and help them select specific shows they'll watch, giving them some control and helping them make decisions. Watch with them when you can. Remember, too, that your goal is to limit screen time to less than two hours a day — even on weekends.
- Create a family screen time policy. As a family, discuss ways to cut back on recreational screen time. Ask the kids to come up with reasonable limits; as parents, you should do the same. Then write up a contract and have everybody sign it. If the family reaches the goal, reward yourselves with a physical activity you all can enjoy, such as walking around a museum or playing at a local park.
- Enjoy an action packed evening. After dinner, resist the urge to watch TV. Take the dog for a walk; go for a family bike ride; play outdoor games such as red rover, tag, duck-duck-goose or hide-and-seek; or play active indoor games such as charades, Twister or hot potato.
- Turn off Saturday morning cartoons. Take kids to the local park, recreation center or health club. Play a game of basketball, let them climb on the monkey bars, or sign them up for swimming lessons or organized team sports.
- Get up and dance. Take off the headphones, turn up the music, and have a family dance contest. Can anybody do the moonwalk or the worm?
- Hang out with friends. Instead of communicating by computer or cellphones, encourage older kids to get together with their friends and do something fun such as walk around the mall, go sledding, or play a pickup game of soccer. For younger kids, invite a friend over and encourage active forms of play instead of watching TV or playing video games.
- Play interactive video games. Invest in or rent video games that require kids to get up and move their arms and legs — no sitting allowed.
- Make screen time an active time. When kids do watch TV, prevent them from being a slouch on the couch. Have a contest to see who can do the most push-ups or jumping jacks during a commercial break. Older kids can stretch, practice yoga or lift weights while watching TV.
Reviewed February 2017 Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND, is a nutrition writer based in Virginia. Jodie (Jo Ellen) Shield, MED, RD, LD, is co-author of Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight for Kids and Teens from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Mary Mullen, MS, RD, is co-author of Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight for Kids and Teens from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.