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As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, many of us have relaxed our rules on screen time. After all, screens are no longer just a form of mindless entertainment, they’ve become the main conduit of kids’ learning and socialization. Adapting to our strange new normal means adjusting our expectations and restricting our kids’ electronics usage doesn’t make much sense in 2020. We have enough to worry about without the stress of micro-managing our kids’ screen time. Still, negative health risks can result from an excess of screen time we can’t easily avoid. Our experts offer practical ways parents can do damage control.

GIVE IT A REST FOR HEALTHY EYES

Prolonged screen time sessions may be the new norm for most of us, but our eyes are suffering the consequences.

Eye fatigue and dry eyes are the most common effects of too much time spent in front of a screen, but more disruptive issues like nearsightedness (myopia) and sleep disorders also occur, says ophthalmologist Albert S. Khouri, MD, Professor of Ophthalmology, Director of Resident Education, and Director of Glaucoma Service at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“The muscle in the eye, the ciliary muscle, works extra hard to focus on images the closer [they are] to the face,” says Dr. Khouri. “Everything is at an arm’s length, whether it’s the TV or iPad or computer screen, and there’s evidence to suggest this close-up world we live in leads to progressive myopia, or nearsightedness.” To reduce eye strain, headaches, and dry eye (frequent blinking can be a sign of dry eyes), keep screens at least an arm’s length away from the face.

Because increased screen time is inevitable amid the COVID-19 pandemic, parents should strive to ensure kids are spending time off the screen every day. Urge kids to rest their eyes by taking regular breaks from the screen, using the “20-20-20” rule: every 20 minutes, look at something that is 20 feet away for 20 seconds, Dr. Khouri says.

MAKE SCREEN TIME LESS OF A HEALTH HAZARD

For children, too much screen time can result in negative health outcomes like cognitive delays and poorer academic performance, says pediatrician David Krol, MD, Medical Director of New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative. “Time spent on screens is taking kids away from other positive activities that contribute to learning, development, and overall health and well-being like exercise, social contact with friends, and good sleep hygiene,” Dr. Krol says.

With the majority of our children’s interactions happening virtually, engaging with our kids at home is more important than ever. Setting aside time each day to talk with your kids about their thoughts and feelings is a valuable way to promote their social, emotional and language development, says Dr. Krol.

Emphasize physical activity, including movement breaks, during remote learning. Inspire your kids to put down the electronics by regularly incorporating family walks or bike rides into your schedule. “Encourage kids to get out of the house to exercise and play, or exercise in the house if outside isn’t an option. Do it as a family for even more fun and health for everyone,” Dr. Krol says.

SCREENS ARE A MAJOR SLEEP DISRUPTOR

Screens emit blue light, which disrupts the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our body’s sleep-wake cycle. To minimize harmful effects from screens, children should avoid them altogether within two hours before bed, says Andrea Spaeth, PhD, Assistant Professor and Laboratory Director at the Rutgers Sleep Lab.

“Exposure to light during the day helps to enhance alertness and cognitive performance by inhibiting melatonin. Exposure to blue light (from screens) after it is dark outside may affect a child’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Cells in our eyes are particularly sensitive to the blue light wavelength. Red light, for example, does not suppress melatonin to the same degree,” Dr. Spaeth says.

Blue light isn’t the only culprit causing sleep issues in kids—the content our kids are viewing also plays a role. “Television shows, social media, video games, etc. typically do not promote relaxation,” Dr. Spaeth says. “It makes it more difficult to shift into sleep mode. Having a bedtime routine that allows for the transition from waking activities into more relaxing activities can help once it is time for lights out.”

Instead of letting kids watch TV or play video games right before bedtime, have them read a favorite book or allow them to lead a relaxing family activity.

“The brain is not meant to be subjected to blue light 24 hours a day, and these changes can really disrupt sleep, which can be very detrimental in younger children,” adds Dr. Khouri. ”Getting enough sleep is important for development, cognitive function, performing in school and there’s even some evidence it’s important for growth as well.”

Regularly engaging as a family in both conversation and movement serves to actively elevate our kids’ physical and mental health, both of which might be taking a hit during this difficult time.

—Heidi L. Borst is a mother, writer and nutrition coach based in Wilmington, NC.