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Kids are spending too much time on tablets, smart phones and other technology.
Kids are spending too much time on tablets, smart phones and other technology. (Gerald Herbert / AP)

We know it’s easy for parents to plop their kids in front of a tablet or smartphone when things get hectic. The bright screens and animated characters on a game or movie easily distract cranky young people. Just a few minutes so I can get a little break, too many parents argue in their head.

Unfortunately, parents are turning to this virtual babysitter too often, and those few minutes here and there are adding up to way more screen time than is healthy.

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An astounding number of children — 87% — watch screens way more than recommended, according to a recent analysis released in November by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, the University at Albany and the New York University Langone Medical Center. More alarming is that the exposure is beginning in infancy, when the American Academy of Pediatrics said young ones shouldn’t be watching any screens at all. Screen time at such an early age can potentially alter brain development.

The organization of physicians says children should be gradually exposed to small bits of screen time from 18 to 24 months old. In other words, it should be doled out like a treat, such as candy or birthday cake. From age 2 to 5 years old, children should be allowed only an hour a day of any computer, television or smartphone time.

Instead, infants are watching 53 minutes of screen time by age 12 months and more than 150 minutes at age 3. Some of our youngest children sat in front of a screen for as long as four hours. This is a time when children should have free play, build with blocks and scribble in coloring books. Or how about run around outside in the fresh air? Mindlessly watching a series of cartoons, even if they are educational, is not good for a child’s development.

A new study published last month in JAMA Pediatrics studied brain scans of young children and found that kids aged 3 to 5 years old had underdeveloped white matter in their brains if they watched screens for more than an hour a day. The researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital said these early years are vitally important for brain development, and screen time is inhibiting this in many children.

Parents need to do better. We know life gets stressful and portable tablets and devices make it easier to take screens anywhere. How many times have we seen a toddler in a shopping cart at the grocery store grasping a smart phone with children’s songs blaring out. We’re not trying to judge, but moms and dads need to fight the temptation to turn devices on when they’re children get a little fussy. How about a rattle, stuffed animal or picture book to flip through. Parents also need to find down time for themselves so the harried nature of parenting doesn’t overwhelm them. That is when they are more likely to take the easy way out.

Doctors can also play a role. More need to educate their patients on the pitfalls of too much screen time. We know parents have heard the messages, but clearly the dangers aren’t resonating. The messaging needs to be stronger and to a wider audience of parents.

For instance, children of parents who only hold a high school diploma or GED were more likely to participate in too much screen time. So were children of first-time mothers and those who were twins. On the other hand, those children who go to a center for daycare with structured activities, as opposed to being watched at home by a parent or babysitter, were less likely to overuse screens as much. Similarly, the NIH study found that screen time fell by age 7 or 8 when kids were in school where tablets and phones weren’t readily available.

Technology is a part of the world, but it doesn’t have to consume our young children. When children do use tablets and other devices, parents should engage with them. Children learn better when they interact with someone.

Parents owe it to their children to have some patience and not use the screen time to soothe their children —or to be more truthful, soothe themselves. Because let’s get real, calming a kid with a device is about making the parent feel better as much the child. The consequences of that are not worth the few minutes of quiet time.

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