Health Wise: Dr. Li-Yu Mitchell discusses the pros and cons of kids and screen time


Dr. Li-Yu Mitchell, Health Wise

My husband and I are THAT couple you’ve seen who have taken their kids to a restaurant and allowed them to use educational electronic devices as makeshift babysitters.

We justify it as high-tech versions of the crayons and activity sheets that are provided at many restaurants. It keeps our children quiet, and we can enjoy a few moments of grown-up conversation before the meal gets there.

Is there any harm in that?

A 2010 Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation report “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds” shows that kids are spending an average of more than 7 hours a day on electronic media, which includes TV, the Internet, video games and mobile devices. In other words, kids are plugged into some kind of electronic device for more than 50 hours a week.

That Kaiser survey of 2,000 students across the country also found that kids who are heavy media users (16 or more hours a day) tend to have lower grades than kids who are light users (less than 3 hours a day).

Seems pretty obvious.

In regards to toddlers and technology, how dangerous is it developmentally for kids under the age of 2? We don’t have long-term data on this. But, we do know the first couple of years of life are important to brain development. So the concern is, if toddlers are spending too much time looking at a screen, what are they NOT spending time looking at - the world outside, a human’s facial expressions? Common sense dictates that anything out of balance is bad.

A 2014 UCLA study found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smart phone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices. The study highlighted that overuse of electronic devices in children decreases their sensitivity and understanding of emotional cues of other people.

Per the American Academy of Pediatrics website, “Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.”

But, we cannot demonize electronics, as they are here to stay and are essential to our day-to-day existence. I don’t know what I would do without the smart phone reference apps that help me in the clinic and help me communicate with doctors securely, that keep me on time to meetings and kids’ activities and that keep track of how much I exercise everyday. For the kids, computer and technological literacy are vital to future success in our high-tech world. I never imagined being a physician would also mean being competent in navigating multiple electronic health record systems, radiological and medical coding databases!

So what can parents do to make sure we don’t raise a generation of kids who are plugged in to devices and tuned out to people?

For starters, we can monitor our own media use. I know I’ve had to remind myself more than a few times to walk away from the computer or put down my cell phone and truly engage with my children face to face. As I am writing this piece, my 4-year-old has come to me multiple times begging for my attention - or alternatively - asking whether she “can play on something,” since she is so accustomed to being placated with her LeapPad or an educational video while mommy is on the computer working on “something important.”

My husband and I - and I suspect we are not alone - have created this problem by virtue of our very busy lives. It didn’t happen overnight, and the fix won’t be instantaneous. Our family has tried a “token” system, with 90 minutes of any media of choice per day, and have let the kids decide when to use their tokens. Now, much to their dismay, there are some days we simply have electronics-free days altogether. The solution for our family will continually evolve.

So, I propose that families encourage a “healthy media diet” for their children. Parents and kids should work together to reach a consensus in terms of both how much time to spend daily on media and what types of media are age and developmentally appropriate. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends no more than 2 hours of screen time daily.

There is still a good chance you will see me and my family with electronics on at a restaurant. But with any luck you will also see interaction and sharing, and not just 5 pairs of eyes fixed on 5 separate screens.

Li-Yu Mitchell, MD, is a mother of three, a family physician and wound care specialist at ETMC Wound Healing Center, president-elect of the Smith County Medical Society and is on the steering committee for Texas Academy of Family Physicians, Rose Chapter.


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