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Alternatives To Screen Time: Improve Children’s Habits and Health

Good habits have a big impact on kid’s health. Finding alternatives to screen time can establish lifelong healthy habits while encouraging creativity and social development.

It’s true we live in a technological world, and this is obvious in our children.

Today, many school-aged children are savvy and able to navigate screen time independently. They can surf the web, program their mobile phone, set up the music system in the home, and operate the family TV. While that can be a huge help, there can be downsides to all that TV viewing and other screen time.

For one, children aren’t playing like they used to.

Children 8-12 years spend about 4-6 hours a day on screens and screen time for teenagers is about 9 hours a day. That’s 4-9 hours a day that your child isn’t engaged in an activity necessary for healthy growth and development.

Curbing screen time isn’t easy. Kids are getting phones younger and younger, and everyone wants the latest video gaming system. Screens play a major role in how kids stay connected.

Are you torn between wanting what’s best for your child and not wanting to stand in the way of your child’s social relationships?

Finding alternatives to screen time might be the key to limiting screens without a battle. Establishing good habits now will help kids navigate screen time even when you aren’t there to regulate it!

Alternatives to screen time can improve your child's habits and health. Learn why!

What Exactly Is a Screen?

The term “screen” describes the variety of technological devices that children are exposed to and use for general entertainment.

Anything containing a screen–the TV, gaming systems like the Nintendo Switch, Xbox, and Playstation, the computer, the phone, the iPod, and smartwatches.

How Screen Time Can Affect Your Child’s Health

Researchers show a strong correlation between the number of hours spent watching TV to an increased prevalence of weight problems in children.

If your child spends over 2 hours in front of the TV per day, she is at greater risk of gaining extra weight.

All that sitting time isn’t good for kids or parents.

TV viewing and too much screen time may lead to overeating and a reduction in energy expenditure (or the amount of energy the body burns in a day).

The TV is a powerful distraction when it comes to eating sensible amounts. Have you ever watched a movie with a bowl of popcorn and consumed the entire bowl?

I have… and so have my kids.

It’s easy to forget or become involved in the show and lose track of your sense of fullness and satisfaction… and overeat.

Sedentary behavior, or sit-down time, burns less energy than moving the body (activity).

It’s simple to see: too much TV and screen time may promote more sit-down time resulting in less overall physical activity and a greater possibility for overeating (if done while watching), which can create a scenario for unwanted or unhealthy weight gain.

As a mom, I totally recognize the value of screen time: learning about new stuff (Thank you Sesame Street!), and exploration of new cultures, ideas, and geography. And yes, even a non-human babysitter and occupier of your child’s attention so you can get stuff done.

But to raise a healthy child and establish healthy living habits for your family, you’ll need to take a good look at how screen time is used and how much is consumed.

Let’s start by looking at the benefits of limiting screens and of filling that time with positive alternatives to screen time.

3 Benefits of Alternatives to Screen Time

As a children’s nutrition expert, I’m very concerned about the lack of physical activity and poor eating habits that are connected with heavy screen use.

However, there are a few other benefits of limiting screen time for your child’s creativity, social and cognitive development.

Encourages Creativity and Interests

Creativity requires flexible thinking and is important for problem-solving and the ability to deal with challenges.

Activities like drawing, writing, crafts, painting, drama, free play and even listening to music help develop creativity in your child.

School-age children that engage in creative activities are more likely to be socially and behaviorally well-balanced as teenagers.

Promotes Brain Development

Activity keeps your body healthy and reading is an exercise for your brain.

Reading to young children counts! In fact, when parents read to young children between 3 and 5 years old, it activates brain function.

While the brain is 80-85% developed by age 3, the benefits of reading don’t end there. Reading 20 minutes a day is associated with scoring in the 90th percentile on standardized tests.

More Engagement With Friends and Family

Social development is the process that children learn to interact with others around them.

While structured activities like team sports get your child moving and out with friends, unstructured activities like free play are more likely to help your child develop social skills.

Here are some ideas for family activities that get your child off the screen and interacting with everyone in the house:

  • Helping in the kitchen
  • Family game night
  • Helping with chores (raking leaves is easier and more fun when everyone helps!)

Tips to Limit Screen Time and Create Good Habits in Kids

If your child is teetering over the two-hour mark of daily screen use regularly, I’ve got a few steps you can take to drop it down to a healthier part of your child’s life.

Rethink Where You Keep the Screens

Most personal devices are small enough to fit in your pocket, so here are a few tips to limit where and how often your child picks up the screen.

  • Make the bedroom a no-TV and gaming system zone. Children with TVs in their bedroom watch a lot of TV! The presence of a TV in a child’s room is one of the leading indicators of excess screen time.

Removing the TV and other screens will curtail the number of hours your child is inactive watching TV, playing video games, and laying on the bed listening to the iPod.

  • Establish that kids can use the devices in the common family rooms during certain time frames. This rule may require some flexibility or a different rule for older kids and phones.
  • Remove screens from the bedroom during the night. Set up a central charging station for the family.

Limit All Screen Time

The recommendation for reasonable screen time is 2 hours per day maximum.

The first step is to define what falls into the 2-hour per day screen limit. For example, homework-oriented computer time does not fall within these limitations.

However, video games, television, social media, and YouTube count as screen time.

Consider parameters around screen time that benefit your child and establish good habits. Here are a few guidelines to get you started:

  • During the school week, keep screen time focused on schoolwork, projects, and educational endeavors.
  • Discourage eating while on a screen or watching TV.
  • Discourage screen use in social settings like restaurants and family gatherings.

(Your kids might benefit from separate guidelines to monitor phone use and texting with friends).

It’s Never Too Early To Start a Good Habit

Limits on screen time should begin as early as 5 years of age, and probably even earlier. 

This makes sense–toddlers and preschoolers are naturally curious, on-the-move creatures!

When we use the TV or other screens to entertain them, we are training them to be sedentary.

Encourage Your Child’s Autonomy

Get your child involved in setting guidelines and creating good habits so they have some control.

Come up with a list of activities together as a family that are alternatives to screen time.

Allow your child to add things he likes to do. Hang the list in his room, so when it’s time to turn off the screens, he can look at the list for ideas of how to fill his time.

Save money and pay your child with screen time instead!

Try a chore chart for screen time to encourage responsibility and to teach intrinsic motivation (the internal desire to do things oneself).

Earning screen time (up to the 2-hour daily limit) will teach your child how to learn self-control by practicing delayed gratification.

Less Screen Time, More Play Time

Cultivate an attitude of “let’s do” rather than “let’s see,” or “let’s watch”.

When my kids were younger, I scheduled an outside activity every day (even in the freezing Boston winters). Mostly, it was going to the backyard to play or taking a walk.

I believe that fresh air keeps the germs at bay, but more importantly, I wanted to make sure my kids went down for their naps and slept well at night.

I think a child who is active during the day has an easier time falling and staying asleep.

And you know what?

Being active and getting outside was good for me too!

Encouraging your children to be active is easier if you are an active parent yourself.

It helped me get out of the house, change the environment, and decompress from any motherly frustrations. (Raising four young kids is not for the impatient!)

And, I know I was role modeling what I eventually wanted them to adopt: an active lifestyle.

Take Small Steps

Any modification and limit you can place around TV and screens will be an improvement! 

Be realistic about what you can tackle without too much rebellion from your child.

Some families do well with setting up a schedule for TV viewing, or a policy around shows during the school week.

We had a no TV policy before school, for instance.

Our family still maintains a no cell phone policy at the dinner table, and when we go out for dinner, we stack them up and put them in the corner of the table.

Final Thoughts

Children play with toys less frequently, head outside less and less, and literally spend more time letting their fingers do the walking than their arms and legs.

All those hours in front of a screen are hours they’re not engaging socially or developing their creativity.

Screens are everywhere now, and you’re up against peer pressure from social media and advertisements.

Advertisements on video and computer games (called advergames) and advertisements on educational websites and games (called advercations) are the norm, luring children to the screen while silently molding their thoughts and beliefs about food and the world around them.

The key to helping children build good habits is finding the balance between screens and engaging in alternatives to screen time.

And limiting screen time can be a good thing for the whole family!

Instead of sitting in front of a screen, spend time together and be more active.

Go for a walk or bike ride. Play a board game or card game. Enjoy family mealtimes together and talk about the day.

In the end, too much screen time is counter-productive to healthy living.

How much screen time does your child get and is it affecting his or her health?

Need More Help with Raising a Healthy Child?

Check out my FREE video training, my quick checklist to see if you’re on track, or get access to my flagship class, The Nourished Child Blueprint, which covers everything you need to know (and be doing) to raise a healthy child.

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