The Investigators: What will increased screen time mean for your child’s physical, mental health?

The Investigators: What will increased screen time mean for your child’s physical, mental health?

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Students who are virtually learning this year will spend hours each day on their digital devices.

Medical experts say too much screen time can be harmful to anyone, but what about developing minds in particular?

An article just published by the American Medical Association says “K through 12 virtual school is not suited for all students or all families” but that early research shows there can be positive outcomes.

“Right now we really need to have those devices for learning so we have to rethink how we’ve thought about screens,” said Dr. Toni Whitaker, developmental pediatrician at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Whitaker says some children will adapt easily to virtual learning, especially the older students.

“We do worry for younger kids for whom that style of learning is probably not going to fit just right early on so we’ll have to help them more,” she said. “For some kids whom that’s just not the best method for them, we’ll have to pay some extra attention.”

There aren’t specific medical guidelines for exactly how many hours of screen time a school-age child should receive.

However, the Superintendent of Germantown Municipal Schools said students in his district won’t be staring at a screen all day.

“I think it’s a misunderstanding for some of the community to think ‘oh virtual learning, you’re sitting on a computer for seven hours a day. That’s not necessarily the case,” said Jason Manuel.

Manuel says about a quarter of Germantown students opted for virtual-only learning this year.

“They’re not just setting up a camera or computer in the back of a classroom and filming a class. There can be activities that are offline,” he told The Investigators. “So for example it could be, ‘read this section of a novel for the next 20 to 30 minutes then we’re going to log back in and have a Zoom session.’”

According to Dr. Whitaker, variety in virtual instruction is key in keeping kid’s attention and to combat the unwanted side effects of too much screen time including obesity, sleep problems and muscle and joint issues.

“Supplementing what we do on screens for learning with things we can do in person. Make it creative, make it fun. Give kids a space to move around and get comfortable and take breaks,” she said.

Those breaks can also be an opportunity for parents to check in on their child’s mental health, and those conversations should be ongoing.

“I don’t think we have to assume it’s not going to be okay but we are just going to have to be aware that we should keep an eye out for anything that’s different, anything the child says is concerning,” she said.

Medical experts warn a child’s exposure to inappropriate, even unsafe content can contribute to mental health issues.

So school districts, including Shelby County, Collierville and Germantown, have installed content filters on their school-issued devices.

“We have several filter systems that are on all our devices. One scans every email, every document, everything in there. So if there’s inappropriate language, even if a student is joking. This is something we’ve had for awhile and it’s been beneficial,” said Manuel. “If a student is contemplating suicide and wrote, ‘I’m having a really hard time’ to a friend and ‘I’m really questioning things.’ That automatically gets sent to our administration and we can get them the help they need.”

Some districts are even offering lessons on how to be good digital citizens by avoiding and reporting cyberbullying.

Meanwhile, parents and medical experts will be watching and learning alongside thousands of Mid-South students about how to rethink screens, now that children’s educations depend on them.

“It’s certainly of some concern but I think that it needs to be done and I think we can do it smartly. Every family can figure this out smartly so that the kids still get a balance,” said Dr. Whitaker.

For more information about screen time and children, click here for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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