Then and Now: Is Technology Affecting Your Child’s Health?

computer-danger-2-1428562Do you struggle with your child or teenager because they seem obsessed with a video game? Or maybe their cell phone seems to have become an extension of their body? Or, if your child has been identified by his pediatrician as “overweight”, have you gotten the spiel about limiting “screen time” to less than 2 hours a day? What is really going on here and does it really matter?

The purpose of this post is not only to share my experiences with families, but also share some of the research that gives us insight into this whole situation. We older folks like to reflect on “the way it was” back in the day. Although we tend to joke about it, “when I was your age….” the challenges parents face today truly are not funny. The direction we see kids going as far as health and lifestyle is scary.

First, let me get it over with. “When I was young”, make that the year 1974, when I was a senior in high school, this memory sticks with me: the typing teacher (yes, we had giant, heavy typewriters) called us into a room to show us the school’s first computer. It was the size of a refrigerator. It spit out cards with markings on them that meant nothing to me. He said “one day, you all will have one in your homes”. Not me! I thought. Who would want that giant thing in their house? Why would you need one? And here I now sit, nice and comfy on the couch, looking out over the newly fallen snow, with my convenient lap top resting on top of the cozy blanket on my lap, enabling me to write something that people as far away as Australia will (hopefully) read. My husband is in another room, on another computer checking all over the world for possible vacation destinations. My cell phone just beeped (got a message), but at least the television is off (OK, I admit, I am recording the sports station because I love all the pregame stories before the Super Bowl).

Here we go, you know this story, too: when I was young we had one TV in the living room with 3 channels. We walked 2 miles to and from school everyday. We had gym everyday. We walked to the park in the summer and stayed there all day in the pool (pond) or played baseball, hop scotch, hide and seek, rode our bikes, built forts in the woods. Our bedtime was our bedtime, and sometimes the sun was still out. If it snowed, nothing changed. We were still outside all day, building our snow forts and having snow ball fights. You get the picture. We loved it and we were happy. I imagine it was not easy for parents back then, having to be firm with us to get to bed, get us to the park for our swimming lessons before we were old enough to go ourselves. They had nothing to entertain or occupy us (except maybe coloring books and puzzles, or an Easy Bake Oven if you were lucky). Today, it is different.

Consider Tony (made up name) a teenager referred by his endocrinologist for nutrition counseling because of pre-diabetes and obesity. He came to the visit with his mother who was also large sized and had Type 2 diabetes. She was a single mom with mental health issues of her own. After talking to Tony for a very short time it was clear he was not motivated, and really was not worried about his health. For most of his life he has had a television in his bedroom as well as a computer and many video games. His favorite was the one that allows you to play with people all over the world (that was why, he said, he had to stay up until 4 am, because of the time zone differences, and that is when his “team” played). He went to his room the minute he got home after school and stayed there all night. Since his mom did not like cooking, they tended to order out a lot (pizza, Chinese) which Tony would eat in his room while doing his thing. He actually had a small fridge in his room to keep his soda cold, and that way, he did not have to walk down to the kitchen.

As I write Tony’s story, it occurs to me that his story is not unique in my world. Some of you may be thinking “that is horrible!” but the truth is, that story describes a typical teenager that I have seen over the years for the same issues. Yes, being a single parent, especially a parent with depression makes it even harder to make changes. But, this lifestyle is identical in many two-parent homes, with happy-go-lucky parents who are healthy and do not have mental health issues.

It seems to be our culture now that not only adults, but most children have a television in their bedrooms at a very young age (I have seen it even at the toddler age). I believe one of the reasons is that as a parent, it does make your life a bit easier when Johnny is occupied in his room with some movie or game so that you can get your laundry done! Also, peer pressure contributes to the scenario. I can count on one hand the number of parents I know who refused to get their child a cell phone (other than for emergencies, or when they are out so they can call home, which is different, and I don’t blame them!). It is hard to say no to a child who wants the latest video game (all his friends have it!) and it is nice I bet to have something to bribe your child with (if you do this, then I will get you that game!). Not to mention, these games and computers and phone plans are not cheap!

Besides the cost of technology, what are some of the other negative consequences? Here is what I have noticed:

  • Isolation (not much family time if your child is holed up in his room for hours). In one STUDY of over 5,000 children in 12 countries, that average time spend in sedentary behavior was 8.6 hours.
  • Poor sleep (many a teenager has admitted to me they turn their computers back on after parents have gone to bed. It is just too hard to resist). Poor sleep contributes to food cravings and abnormal weight gain.
  • Poor nutrition intake (kids are not snacking on carrots and hummus when they are playing video games, but tend to eat unhealthy foods that do not contribute to health and normal growth). See Study on food intake and physical activity
  • Lack of social skills (playing with imaginary people on an imaginary video game does not help kids learn how to talk to real live beings).
  • Addiction (some children are more prone to becoming addicted to video games, see One study on children and teens)
  • Dangerous situations (if a child has a computer and internet access in their bedrooms, and are logging on after parents go to bed, they are susceptible to trouble)
  • Physical inactivity (which leads to an unhealthy body, if we need an hour of fun physical activity daily, then spending over 8 hours a day in front of a screen does not leave much time left)

Even though it is clear to most of us that too much screen time is not healthy for our children and teens, what are you supposed to do if your child already has that TV in her bedroom, already has a cell phone they are attached to or already spends hours secluded in their bedrooms with their electronics and technology? Prevention, of course, is easier than a cure.  A recent study on Parent’s Screen Viewing Time and children’s suggests that the apple does not fall too far from the tree, and that we need to direct our efforts for helping parent’s change their ways first. Here is my advice:

  • Take a look at your own habits as a parent. How much time do YOU spend watching TV or working on a computer? Are YOU addicted to any games yourself? Focus on changing your ways and your children will follow. Remember, kids do what you do, not what you tell them to do.
  • Start early. NEVER put a television or computer in a child’s room. Tell your child, the bedroom is for sleeping. Or maybe playing with friends or reading.
  • Challenge yourself: can you remove the TV from your own bedroom? That would free you up to join your children in doing something else…hhhhmmmm.
  • Remove cell phones and computers, tablets, etc. from a child’s room an hour before bed. If you let them keep it in their rooms, even if they “swear they won’t turn it on!” don’t believe them. Don’t expect a child or teenager to be able to control this. Most of them can’t (from what I have seen).
  • Get ready for some tantrums! If you have allowed your child or teen to be attached to the tablet or phone or TV, and now you suddenly try to change it overnight, there will be fireworks. You might want to start by having a discussion about making healthy changes, and gradually decreasing the time on devices. I have seen success with setting alarms and/or parental controls. I have also seen more success when parents join in and do something fun with their children (puzzles, cooking, hikes, games, etc) as a substitute. Most young kids really love doing fun things with you. Playing a game of checkers with my siblings was always a blast! I know, I know, how are you supposed to get anything done? That could be another post in itself: How to Live With A House That Is Not Perfectly Clean and Organized so That You Can Spend More Time With Your Children Because Before You Know It, They Will Be Gone
  • Consider transitioning to some active video games that you can do with your child. Kids just love watching mom or dad stumble over their feet with Dance Dance Revolution. It is a fun way to get to use technology yet get some good physical activity in at the same time. Start by moving your electronics to one common area like a family room or living room, that way everyone can participate. Also, it will be less likely your child will be spending excessive time on the device since it will be out in the open.
  • There are exceptions of course. Many children with special needs really can’t survive without a screen or tablet. They are used for motivation, communication or just to help a child focus. This is different, but you know your child best, so go with your instincts as a parent.

I am sure there are other important points, and good reasons to change this trend. Maybe it is because of the era I grew up that it strikes me as scary. It just bothers me when I enter an elevator in the hospital where I work, and even the young doctors can’t look up to say good morning because they are glued to their phones. It is not to address some emergency, it is clearly a discomfort with communicating in person. I don’t think it is good.

As for me, my screen time is up! It is almost noon here in New England, and I plan on breaking in those new snow shoes ; ) I hope you get out and enjoy the real world too.

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