“I worry that my son spends too much time in front of screens, but there’s not much I can do, “ laments one Austin dad. “He plays games with his friends on the computer, does homework online and watches YouTube on his tablet. When you consider time spent on social media as well as smartphone use, my son spends almost all of his free time in front of a screen.” This parent’s concerns are shared by parents throughout the United States. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 71% of parents with children younger than 12 years old responded that they are concerned about too much screen time.

Even though it can feel overwhelming to try to manage a child’s use of digital devices, there are steps you can take. Here are four ways to safeguard your child’s health and well-being against the negative effects of screen time.

#1. Use Strategies To Prevent Digital Eye Strain

Long periods of uninterrupted screen time can cause digital eye strain. Looking at a screen requires close-up focus. The eyes can get tired, just as they do from extended periods of reading a book. But what’s different about looking at a screen is that we blink less. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), humans normally blink about 15 times per minute, but we only blink about five to seven times per minute when looking at computers and devices. Blinking helps maintain a stable film of tears on the surface of the eyes and moisturizes them. When you don’t blink enough, your eyes dry out. As a result, they can become irritated and your vision blurry. To help avoid these problems, the AAO recommends following the 20-20-20 rule (see below) and making a conscious effort to blink. 

Avoid Digital Eye Strain

To prevent digital eye strain, remind your child to:

  • Take shorts breaks from the computer or device. Every 20 minutes, look at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
  • Be aware of blinking and make a conscious effort to blink more often. Blinking helps moisturize the eyes.

#2. Encourage Active Versus Passive Screen-Related Activities

Not all use of computers or devices is bad. During the pandemic when social interaction is limited, online games and social media provide opportunities for much-needed social interaction with a child’s peers. Encourage active versus passive computer and device activities. Activities that can provide social engagement and learning include:

  • Playing online games, such as Fortnite or Minecraft, with friends
  • Having a conversation by text message
  • Researching a topic for a school project
  • Participating in an online class.

Discourage passive activities that provide little mental stimulation or social interaction, such as:

  • Doomscrolling social media
  • Watching YouTube videos of little value
  • Binge watching TV shows or movies.

#3. Promote a Balance of Activities

Promote a balance of activities to add variety to your child’s life experiences:

  • Physical activity. Children should get at least one hour of physical activity every day. Adding in opportunities for participation in sports and outdoor exercise will naturally decrease the time your child spends in front of a screen. Make daily physical activity a priority for everyone in the family.
  • Family mealtime. Try to eat at least one family meal together every day. Everyone, including parents, should keep devices and smartphones tucked away somewhere else. Turn off or pause the TV. Be sure to engage all family members in conversation. Mealtimes can provide an opportunity for nurturing and building a positive relationship with your child.
  • Alternative activities. Suggest alternative activities to replace screen time. Help your child break the habit of picking up a device at every opportunity. One idea for younger children is to play games while riding in the car. This will encourage your child to look out the window at the world instead of at a device. Try the game, “Spot it.” Start by asking everyone in the car to choose a color. Designate a scorekeeper. Then each passenger looks for a vehicle of their chosen color and calls out when they spot one. The scorekeeper keeps a tally. The passenger who spots the most cars of their chosen color “wins.” You can vary the game by changing the target, depending upon the route. In residential areas, look for dogs, people with umbrellas, mailboxes or flags. On the interstate look for SUVs, vans, trucks, buses or 18-wheelers. Involve your child in choosing the target for the day.

#4. Protect Your Child’s Sleep

Blue light from computers and devices can interfere with your child’s sleep. This type of light signals the brain to produce less melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy. Not only does lack of melatonin interfere with falling asleep, but it may also contribute to interrupted sleep during the night. Protect your child’s sleep by establishing a digital curfew. Turn screens off at least one to two hours before bed. This will allow the body to produce melatonin naturally.

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