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Screen Time for Kids: A Pediatrician’s Perspective

Guest blog post from Rebecca Hicks, MD, IBCLC. Dr. Hicks is a pediatrician with Mosaic Medical who is passionate about promoting healthy family connections (and limiting screen time for kids!).

What an amazing fall we have had in Central Oregon! The warm weather and beautiful autumn colors have lasted a full month longer than the last few years. But as I checked the weather forecast this morning, I see that the warm weather will soon come to an end. Snow is in the forecast for nearly every day next week. Time to break out the winter coats!

My family and I moved here a few years ago, and I have to say that the weather was not Central Oregon’s biggest selling point for my husband and I. What brought my family to Bend was hope. Hope for a more family-centered life where we could enjoy each other’s company more often without fighting hours of traffic on our way home from work. Hope for more opportunities to enjoy nature without crowds of people at every place we visited. Hope for a place to raise our three children without the stresses and intensity that faced them in the San Francisco Bay Area where we lived for 12 years prior to moving here. And Central Oregon has delivered…on 2 out of 3.

I am a pediatrician and my husband is a school principal. Our professional lives are jam packed with daily interactions with kids and youth and have been for many years. And over the last decade, we have both become more and more concerned with what we see in those interactions.

Overall, the trends that I see among children and adolescents in my practice and in nationwide studies are worrisome. Resiliency, connection, emotional intelligence, time spent outdoors, and time spent with friends among youth are at or near all time lows. At the same time, language delay, poor executive functioning, ADHD, low self esteem, anxiety, depression, and even suicide are at or near all time highs. As a pediatrician, I care deeply about the physical and mental health of every single child. And I have to wonder what the causes are of these trends and what I can do to make this better.

There is a philosophical principle called “Occam’s razor” that I often think of when contemplating questions like these. It says this: The simplest solution is most likely the right one. For example, if you look outside and see that the sky is gray and cloudy, the ground is wet, and people are carrying umbrellas, the simplest and most obvious answer that ties all of those together is that it is raining. Sure, it’s possible that there are three separate explanations for those three observations, but the simplest and most obvious is the most likely.  

So what is the simplest and most obvious change that I can observe about today’s youth that is different than it was 10 years ago? Smart phones and soaring screen time for kids.

But as a doctor, I don’t let philosophical principles alone guide my opinions or the medical advice that I give to my patients. I rely on evidence. So for the past three years I have delved into the scientific evidence on the effects of excessive screen time in children and adolescents. Here is what I have found: Excessive screen time in children and youth is associated with (in ascending age order): language delay, poor executive functioning, ADHD, low self esteem, anxiety, depression and even suicide.

And this is the hope that Central Oregon has not fulfilled for my family. Children and youth here are not only as impacted by stresses and intensities as what we saw in the Bay Area, but in some ways it is even worse here. Rates of depression and anxiety that pediatricians in Central Oregon face have skyrocketed in recent years. Suicide among persons age 10-24 in Deschutes county has increased 200% in the last 15 years. Excessive screen time is certainly not responsible for all of these cases, but there is a looming question of whether excessive screen time for kids is contributing to these recent increases.

Researchers are really still in the infancy of collecting data on excessive screen time. Much of the data that we have on excessive screen time so far is associational, but several longitudinal studies (which better point to cause and effect) have been published supporting a directional association between excessive screen time and later poor health outcomes like these. And families can recognize that this is happening in their own homes without knowing anything about the data.

Almost daily I have parents in my office in tears, desperate for help in gaining back connection with their tweens and teens, and desperate for help in getting their kids to turn off screens.

It doesn’t take a medical degree to understand that giving kids and teens unlimited access to entertainment media without limits is a bad idea. But it does take a lot of hard work and guidance for parents to figure out how exactly to navigate this for their families and determine a healthy amount of screen time for kids.  

My advice…you have to pair high limit setting with high levels of warmth, compassion and caring. But families need more details of how to do this. So I have created free talks that I give to students, parents, healthcare professionals and anyone who wants to know more about the effects of excessive screen time on kids. And I created a website dedicated to helping families navigate screen time. My goal is to reach as many families in Central Oregon as I can. Every child deserves to live in a place where face-to-face connection, time spent with friends and family, and time spent outdoors is the norm. I’m here to help make Central Oregon that place, for your kids…and for mine.

 Most sincerely,

Rebecca Hicks, MD, IBCLC

Read the latest from Dr. Hicks on her blog:  “Screen Time Smarts for the Holidays”

Learn more on this topic on the website created by Dr. Hicks: healthybalancedkids.com

Dr. Hicks completed her medical internship and residency training at Stanford University. She practiced pediatrics in the San Francisco Bay area for nine years prior to moving to Bend with her husband and three young children. Dr. Hicks works as a pediatrician at Mosaic Medical. “Living and working in Silicon Valley fueled my passion for informing parents of the risks of excessive screen time for children. I strive to help children have balance, allowing them to benefit and learn from technology without letting it take over their lives.”

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