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How Much Screen Time Is Safe for Kids? 

Video screens are ubiquitous in children's lives: at home, in the car, on the playground, in the classroom. Whether kids are watching TV, surfing the Internet or texting friends, all that screen time can really add up — to a less than healthy lifestyle.

Dr. Lewis First, chief of pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, offers parents some simple advice: When it comes to screen time, less is more.

KIDS VT: What kinds of problems do you see in kids regarding their computer, television and video-game use?

LEWIS FIRST: A number of studies show that too much of a good thing may not be good when it comes to the physical, mental and social well-being of our children and teenagers. We know that when kids exceed the amount of quality viewing time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics — no more than two hours a day — it increases a child's chances of being overweight and obese.

KVT: Why?

LF: For multiple reasons. For one, they're sedentary, sitting down and not moving around. Two, they're snacking — often on unhealthy foods. Three, they're watching ads, oftentimes for products that are unhealthy and encourage them to eat more.

KVT: Should children be a minimum age before they are exposed to view screens?

LF: Yes. The American Academy of Pediatrics [says] that children under the age of 2 really do not benefit from any exposure to screen time whatsoever. It's recommended that you keep the television and video screens off at least until they're into toddlerhood.

KVT: Are there psychological or emotional effects?

LF: Too much screen time has been associated with increased depression [and] anxiety, difficulty concentrating in school, and a decline in school performance. There's no question that too much screen time makes it harder for children to pay attention and focus in school.

KVT: How does it affect children's social skills?

LF: When kids sit in front of a screen for prolonged amounts of time or play video games by themselves, their social interactions become limited. Their ability to develop peer relationships, to understand what it's like to interface with others, becomes more difficult. For teenagers, they're more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors because of what they're constantly exposed to, whether it's tobacco, alcohol, drugs or sexuality.

KVT: Are "exergames" any better?

LF: When you do these games, your heart rate goes up and you burn calories, but it's the equivalent to a mild to moderate walk. It's not as much as you'd get by playing the sport itself.

KVT: Are there upsides to excergames?

LF: We do know that when used in moderation, they may help a child's sense of balance, agility and reaction time. If a child feels uncomfortable trying a sport for the first time, they can explore what it's like to hit or throw a ball virtually, in the confines of their home.

KVT: Does the size of the screen matter?

LF: No, because whether they're looking at a two-inch or 20-inch screen, the focal point is the same. There's nothing about the screen size that changes any of the risks physically, mentally or emotionally.

KVT: Since electronic devices aren't going away, what's your advice?

LF: We have to work with our children and teens. You can't say, "No television or video games," because kids will find a way to tunnel through at their friends' houses, which gives you even less control over what they're watching, doing or playing. The idea is not to say "no" but to set limits and controls on what kinds of things children or teens will watch and also give them choices.

KVT: How?

LF: A great idea is to say to them that screen time is a privilege that's earned. It's not a right. So, at the start of a week, parents can look to see what kind of programming is coming up and offer their kids a list of options. Say, "You get two hours a day after homework and chores." If parents have the opportunity to record a program, they can play it back during their children's designated screen time. Then, sit with your child and watch it together.

KVT: What else?

LF: Parents need to set rules on where the screen time occurs. No television or video games in the bedroom. None during homework and certainly none during meals, so there can be real conversation. It's a great idea to have the computer or TV in a family room so, when it's over, you turn it off so electronic background noise doesn't become the norm.

KVT: What other resources do parents have?

LF: It's important that parents pay attention to the ratings system and know that if they're getting a video game for their child, it is not wrong to preview the game and know what it's all about before handing it over to a child. There are Internet sites for families to review games, to understand what's in the game and know whether there are language or violence issues. Rating systems allow parents to be more media savvy and help their kids get a better understanding of the world around them. Finally, parents should limit their own screen time and set a good example.

— Ken Picard

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