The Smirnov family: (from left) Leonardo, 5, Dominik, 18 months, and mother Samantha, with their iPads. (Colleen Flanagan/ THE NEWS)

B.C. doctor weighs in on the kid ‘screen time’ debate

A Maple Ridge mother opens up about her children’s use of tablets, smartphones and television

In the Smirnov household, there are three iPads, five cell phones and three televisions.

Samantha, a mother of two from Maple Ridge, admits limiting screen time for her children is a real issue.

There is always an iPad charging and the television never turns off from the moment her children wake up to the moment they go to bed.

Ninety-nine per cent of the time there is a children’s television program on, as the Smirnovs do not watch any adult programming until their children are asleep. They do watch a lot of Netflix.

“We’ve probably watched Captain Underpants 10 times,” Samantha sighed.

Leonardo, 5, and Dominik, 18 months, use all of the family’s devices and Samantha estimates they get at least five hours of screen time a day.

“And that’s a day when we’ve done stuff. If we’re at home all day, it’s probably double that,” she said.

A lot of the time Leonardo, in particular, will be watching something on an iPad in addition to a program on the television.

Leonardo was diagnosed with autism.

“He is very high functioning. You would never know,” said Samantha.

But Leonardo didn’t talk until he was almost three. The Smirnovs used the iPad to teach their son how to speak and Samantha says his improvement was great.

“He is now at a six-year-old level in speech in less than two years,” Samantha said, crediting the iPad for his improvement.

The Smirnovs try to gear their children’s screen time to educational programming.

Canadian Paediatric Society recommendations, though are for less.

Dr. Ingrid Tyler, a Fraser Health medical health officer whose work is centred around the promotion of health and chronic disease prevention, is reminding parents that recommendations are that children over the age of six be limited to no more than two hours of screen time a day.

Those two to five years old should be limited to less than one hour of screen time a day, and children younger than two should be getting no screen time at all.

“The reasons for that is to ensure screen time does not interfere with other important activities. Mostly, those from my perspective, are sleep, physical activity and social connections,” said Tyler.

“We do know that 40 per cent of youth say they get less than eight hours of sleep a night. And we do know that less than 20 per cent of youth are getting the recommended amounts of physical activity a day,” Tyler added.

“For older kids, those over the age of six, we do know that increased screen time can worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

Other research about screen time shows that excessive exposure is associated with cognitive and social delays. Children with higher levels of screen time are at an increased risk for emotional problems and poorer family functioning.

Screen time in youth may influence symptoms of depression and anxiety, and there is a higher risk of depression when screen time exceeds two hours a day.

Using electronic devices near bedtime is associated with inadequate sleep quantity, poor sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness in children.

Tyler says parents should also role-model their own screen behaviour.

Tyler says there are ways to minimize screen time, including scheduling outdoor time every day so children get regular physical activity.

“Also, keep board games, books and puzzles around as an alternative,” said Tyler.

She also suggested that parents keep a media diary to help track their family’s screen time.

The Smirnovs are getting an XBox 1 for Leo, who is in Kindergarten, so he can fit in and play games with his friends at school.

Samantha thinks the guidelines are unrealistic.

“I am not saying five hours a day is appropriate,” but she said screens are everywhere, including at school, the doctor’s office and at the hospital.

Her solution so far has been to hide the devices or pretend she is charging them or even leaving them barely charged so they die after a certain amount of time.

“The biggest thing we do is we hide them all at night. Because if they are out, there is no chance of getting him to do anything that day,” she said of Leo. “He goes to it right away, first thing in the morning.”

Samantha welcomes any tips on how to change her family’s current screen use.

“The dream is to change, but I don’t think it’s possible in our social environment.”

Fraser Health is also promoting the Live 5-2-1-0 healthy living program, which includes eating five or more fruits or vegetables every day, no more than two hours of screen time a day, at least one hour a day of active play and zero sugary drinks.

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