How families can cut screen time

No matter where you look, screens are everywhere. The proliferation of easily portable tablets and smartphones means many people, adults and children alike, are never too far from the nearest screen. While that accessibility has dramatically changed the way many people live their lives, excessive exposure to screen time can produce a host of unwanted side effects.

Steven Gortmaker, a professor of the practice of health sociology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has studied the negative effects of excessive screen time on children since the 1980s. According to Gortmaker, such effects include higher rates of obesity among kids who watch too much television and difficulty sleeping among youngsters with access to small screens, such as the screens of smartphones. In addition, a 2012 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research linked screen time with impaired cognitive function in young males.

But adults are not immune to the effects of excessive screen time, either. Spending significant time being sedentary and staring at screens can increase adults’ risk for cardiovascular disease. An Australian study published in the December 2012 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that, compared with persons who watch no television, those who spend a lifetime average of six hours per day watching television can expect to live 4.8 fewer years.

So what can families do to cut back on their screen time? While it likely won’t be easy to put down smartphones and tablets and turn off laptops and televisions, the following are a handful of ways for families to spend less time staring at screens.

· Remove televisions from bedrooms. Parents may find it impossible to gauge, much less control, how much time their kids spend watching television when youngsters have TV’s in their bedrooms. Though this will likely be met with considerable resistance, remove televisions from bedrooms in your home. Set a positive example for kids by removing your own bedroom television as well. Come kids’ bedtimes, make sure all devices, including smartphones and tablets, are left in common areas of the home rather than bedrooms so kids are not tempted to watch videos instead of falling asleep.

· Institute a “no screens” rule during meals. Many parents grew up in households that did not allow televisions to be on during meals, and while the times might have changed with respect to the technology, similar rules can still prevail today. A “no screens” rule during meals gives parents and their kids time to catch up, bond and foster stronger relationships.

· Do not use the television for background noise. Turn the television off when it’s serving as just background noise. If you need background noise, turn on some music instead.

· Log screen time. Logging screen time for each member of the family can provide an estimate of just how much time the whole family spends staring at screens. Encourage each member of the family to spend as much time being physically active as he or she spends staring at screens. Set goals for each member of the family to reduce their screen time, even rewarding those who reach their goals.

Reducing screen time can improve overall health and help family members reconnect with one another.