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Break the cycle: Too much pandemic screen time raises issues

By Melissa Wagoner

Too much time spent interacting with screens was a problem long before the pandemic, so much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued specific guidelines about the quantity of time children should spend in front of
a screen. 

“For children younger than two years, the AAP discourages all screen time and encourages ‘…more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together,’” Scott Hamblin, a pediatrician at Childhood Health in Silverton explained. In addition, “The AAP recommends limiting older children’s total screen time to no more than one to two hours of quality programming per day.”

Those hours may seem, to some, like a lot but to the parents and children caught in the highly addictive screen-time cycle, going over the recommended one to two hours can be an almost daily occurrence. 

“Pre-COVID, Samantha enjoyed watching videos on YouTube Kids, playing Xbox, and playing games and watching Netflix on her tablet,” Connie DeYoung said. Her daughter, Samantha, just finished third grade. 

“Some days when she got home from school, she could have an hour or two of screen time, depending on the afternoon/evening activities.”

Then the pandemic hit, forcing children and adults alike to spend more time indoors and at home, eliminating extracurricular activities, closing offices and schools.

“There has been a significant increase in screen time during the pandemic,” DeYoung said. “First and foremost, all her Fox Online schoolwork is on her Chromebook. Research that I assign her to do for special projects that supplement her schoolwork is completed mostly on her Chromebook… Social gatherings with family and friends are almost non- existent, therefore she can be on her tablet watching YouTube Kids or listening to music for a good chunk of the afternoon.”

Even Hamblin, the father of three school-aged children, struggled to maintain a balance within the new virtual curriculum. 

“[T]hey have been on their tablets for at least two to three hours a day doing just school work,” he admitted.  “Then you have to negotiate ‘free’ tablet time with them in addition, which we have tried really hard to keep to a minimum throughout the school week.”

It’s a tricky situation due to the necessity for continued online learning and socialization. And it has not been without consequences. 

“Over the last year, we have seen a lot more children with complaints of headaches, increased aggression and mood problems, poor sleeping habits and musculoskeletal issues – particularly neck, shoulder and back pain,” Hamblin described. 

“It is mostly in the school age children, but even toddlers are presenting with more behavioral and sleep issues. Middle and high school children have been greatly affected.”

Muscle aches stemming from poor posture while sitting in front of a computer, laptop or other learning device are bad enough, but the behavior issues, stemming from the affect screen time has on development and the brain have experts more than a little concerned. 

“[T]he importance of unstructured curiosity, movement, creative play and nature time is highly important for brain development and health,” Kelly Prill, a functional neurologist and owner of Elemental Wellness in Silverton, said. Because of this need to balance physical and mental development, “Working on a computer cannot be the sole source of education and experience for children to thrive. And in fact, is correlated with screen codependency, mental health issues, and obesity.”

The pandemic, the Labor Day fires, the February ice storm and the lifestyle changes that came with each have had an impact on the health of both children and adults. 

“The last year has taken its toll on the nervous system, and headaches, anxiety, dizziness are some of the most common conditions I work with,” Prill described. 

“In children this may show up as trouble with reading, issues with paying attention, low energy, and inability to regulate emotions. Screen time exacerbates these conditions based on the way the nervous system is wired. Eye movements, balance and knowing where you are in space are some of the brain’s top priorities, and screen-time, stress and sedentary lifestyles do not support proper input to keep the brain active and highly functioning.”

Screen time is also something over which – unlike natural disasters, job loss or illness – many families can exert at least some control. 

“I don’t think most of the effects from increased screen time will be long term,” Hamblin speculated. 

“My hope is that we can get our kids outside more over the summer months and encourage them to ‘unplug’ for a while. I anticipate that school will be getting back to ‘pre-COVID normal’ starting next fall, and they won’t have to spend as much time in front of a screen while learning.”

Amy Coyle, a principal in the Salem-Keizer School District, hopes so as well, agreeing with Hamblin that summer may be just what many students need to break the on-screen cycle. 

“It’s that natural transition and break time,” she said. “You can change things and kids will adapt to it.”

That is especially true if the changes are made by the family as a unit.

“Unplug and get outside,” Hamblin suggested. 

“That includes us parents, too. We all need to get away from electronics more and engage one-on-one with our children through play, arts and crafts, cooking/eating, outdoor activities. 

“No need to wean slowly. All you need to do is sit down and have a mutual understanding between the adults in the home (very important to have consistency) and the children with regard to appropriate electronic/media usage.”

But it is also important to model grace and resiliency because changing behaviors can be hard and the pandemic has still increased the stress level and workload of many. 

“This last year has been a year of resilience, adaptability and flexibility,” Prill said. 

“I know that parents are doing the best they can. Keep educating and learning about how all these changes are affecting overall health, and move forward with grace and compassion.”

Symptoms of Excess Screen Time
• Physical: neck, back and shoulder pain and headaches
• Mental: aggression, difficulty regulating mood and poor sleeping habits

Tips for Decreasing Screen Time
• Unplug for the summer.
• Remember old pastimes: sports, arts and crafts, cooking or music
• Nurture the parent-child relationship through reading, playing or hands-on education.
• Reconnect with nature on a walk, hike or scavenger hunt.
• Make a family plan healthychildren.org can help

When Screen Time is a must
• Take frequent breaks
• Use manipulatives along with the screen: pencil and paper, blocks, Legos, scissors and glue
• Emphasize educational programming

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