Surprising Reason for Less Screen Time and More Outdoor Play

two boys running in snowWe’ve all heard it many times…. It’s important to limit the time our kids spend looking at screens, be it smartphones, tablets, TV or computers. In fact the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding ALL screen time for children under age 2 (no Elmo!!) and – for children and adolescents aged 3-18 (yes 18!) – limiting use of any screen device or TV to 1-2 hours per day, not counting online homework. But we are a long way from that, with American kids spending an average of 7 hours a day watching devices and screens.

Research shows that excessive screen time is linked with attention issues and school problems, along with physical inactivity, obesity, and lack of sleep. Even eating disorders have been associated with too much media consumption. And, of course, access to TV and the internet can lead to early exposure to age-inappropriate content (like American Dad and other shows on Adult Swim….we’ve had that problem…).

However, we parents all know that limiting screen time is VERY, VERY DIFFICULT. In fact, when the latest AAP policy statement was issued in 2013, an Associated Press reporter created a hash-tag that says it all: #goodluckwiththat. So if you are struggling with how much screen time is too much…here is another reason you probably never knew to get the kids off the internet…and GET THEM OUTSIDE:

A recent article in The Economist magazine highlighted the excessive level of myopia (short-sightedness – inability to see distant objects) among children in China and other East Asian countries. Short-sightedness is 4 times higher among Chinese elementary school children than those in the US, at 40% versus 10% here. Furthermore, levels of myopia in East Asia surge as kids move through school, with 80-90% of urban high school seniors in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan having the condition. Short-sightedness may seem like a benign problem, but its development can increase risk of glaucoma and retinal detachment in adulthood.

Anyone familiar with the Tiger Mom phenomenon might think this has a lot to do with the intense focus on studying and academic achievement, prized in Asian cultures – and you would be partly correct. The article points out that up to the age of six, children in China and Australia have similar rates of myopia, but once they start school, the rates quickly diverge – in large part because of extensive studying, reading and use of electronic devices in Asia.

But that’s not the whole story. One of the most significant drivers of this childhood eyesight issue is lack of time spent outdoors. Apparently sunlight causes release of a chemical in the eye that prevents the eyeball from becoming too long (a common cause of short-sightedness), and Asian children, especially in urban settings, spend less time outside than their Western counterparts. However, myopia is also rising significantly here in America, perhaps due to a drop in time spent playing outside. Studies in Taiwan and Denmark have shown a link between time spent outside and development of short-sightedness, with the Taiwan study showing that a move to hold recess outdoors for elementary students (rather than the country’s usual indoor approach) reduced rates of eyesight issues.

So, another – perhaps surprising – reason to push kids to get off their phones and into the great outdoors….or at least to take their textbooks and study outside on occasion (though that might need to wait until it’s a little warmer – at least around here in the Midwest). The possibility of avoiding glasses might just be an appealing inducement for some kids!

Photo credit: Jon Rieley-Goddard; CC license

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


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