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Fitness and family health

December 12, 2017

How much is too much screen time for kids?

New screen time, activity and sleep guidelines for kids give parents a measuring stick so they can make every moment count.

If you feel like your kids are spending too much of their lives glued to a screen, you’re not alone. While parents have been complaining about their children spending too many hours in front of the television for decades, mobile devices like smartphones, tablets and laptops mean that making sure your kids get enough exercise and sleep is a bigger challenge than ever.

And while too much screen time has long been an issue for older children, it’s now posing a problem for the little ones, too. New research shows that 3 out of 4 Canadian preschoolers spend more than 1 hour per day in front of a screen. That’s the maximum limit recommended by the newly revised Canadian 24-hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth, which prescribe how much screen time, active time and sedentary time children up to age 17 should get.

The evidence-based guidelines – which for the first time in the world include the youngest age group – are the result of research by the Canadian Society for Exercise and Physiology (CSEP) and a group of renowned researchers including the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Healthy Active and Living and Obesity Research Group and ParticipACTION. (The CSEP also recommends activity levels for children and youth aged 5 to 17, adults between 18 and 64, and older adults.)

It’s important for parents to keep an eye on all 3 measures, according to the study. One researcher, Dr. Leigh Vanderloo, physical activity researcher for children with ParticipACTION, says that even if children are active during the day, the benefits of physical activity can be erased if they don’t sleep well. “It can seem a little overwhelming to maintain all of these things, but for optimum health, you need to focus on all 3 behaviours, because they’re interrelated,” says Vanderloo.

Here are the revised 24-hour guidelines for children:

Infants (0 to 1 year)

Move: Infants who aren’t able to move around on their own should get at least 30 minutes of “tummy time” throughout the day. This encourages them to raise their heads and try to crawl. Babies who are mobile should be active daily through floor play and activities such as crawling and reaching for objects and pushing them around.

Sleep: Babies up to 3 months old should get 14 to 17 hours of sleep per day, and infants between 4 and 11 months old should sleep for 12 to 16 hours.

Sit: Ideally, infants shouldn’t be restrained by being strapped into a high chair or stroller, for example, for more than an hour. They should have no screen time at all.

Toddlers (1 to 2 years)

Move: Toddlers should get at least 180 minutes of physical movement daily through various activities such as short walks, dancing or playing outside.

Sleep: Toddlers should get 11 to 14 hours of sleep, including naps, per day.

Sit: Toddlers should spend no more than 1 hour restrained in a stroller or high chair and should have no more than 1 hour of screen time per day.

Preschoolers (3 to 4 years)

Move: Preschoolers should get at least 180 minutes of movement throughout the day. Around 60 minutes of this should be “energetic play,” such as swimming, dancing or playing sports.

Sleep: Preschoolers should get 10 to 13 hours of sleep, including naps.

Sit: No more than 1 hour of screen time is recommended for preschoolers.

Children and youth (5 to 17 years)

Move: School-age children and teens should get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity each day, such as running, walking and playing sports. In addition, they should get active with vigorous physical activity that strengthens their bones and muscles, such as swimming, bike riding, or playing sports, at least 3 days a week.

Sleep: 5- to 13-year-olds should get 9 to 11 hours of sleep each night, while teens (14 to 17) should aim for 8 to 10 hours of sleep.

Sit: Kids should have no more than 2 hours per day of recreational screen time, such as playing video games, using the computer for fun or watching television. (Older kids may use computers or tablets for longer than 2 hours a day for homework – but it’s still a good idea to keep track of the time they spend online.)

If these guidelines seem a far cry from your kids’ reality, you’re not alone. Many kids across the country are falling short of the guidelines, according to Vanderloo. And wrestling daily screen time down to 2 hours can seem nearly impossible when devices are addictive and ubiquitous.

To help your children get more active, Vanderloo suggests keeping a log of their sleep time, screen time and physical activity time. Running an informal audit will show you if your kids are meeting the guidelines and help inform your new health strategy.

5 tips for getting active and sleeping more

Rather than simply removing screen time from your kids’ routine, aim to replace it intentionally with physical activity or rest. This new activity doesn’t have to cost a lot or require fancy equipment, either. Physical exercise that’s fun and effective is often free, says Vanderloo. Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Get down and groovy. Turning on some music and dancing at home is a fun and easy way to get active indoors or outdoors.
  2. Get outside. “Kids are more active outdoors, so encourage them to get outside,” says Vanderloo. While Canadian winters can sometimes make going outside less than appealing, there are many fun things kids can do outside regardless of the weather. Just make sure they are warmly dressed and play in a safe area.
  3. Set consistent bedtimes and wake-up times for your kids. And try to stick to them on weekends and holidays.
  4. Remove screens from the bedroom. Don’t allow televisions, computers or tablets in your kids’ bedrooms, or be sure to store them elsewhere at bedtime.
  5. Make the most of downtime. During downtime or sedentary time, encourage kids to read stories, do puzzles or create crafts. As well, the guidelines recommend reading to children of all ages during downtime.

Use these guidelines as benchmarks and motivators to help your kids get active and sleep more. But don’t be discouraged if it seems expensive or challenging to follow the guidelines.

“What you want to get away from is the idea that play has to happen at a facility, or has to be an organized sport,” says Vanderloo. “Effective physical movement can and should be accessible to people every socioeconomic level and level of ability, both intellectual and physical.”

For more resources, consult your health professional and the CSEP.

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