New Brunswick

Want kids to have less screen time? Put your phones down, pediatrician says

If parents want their kids to spend less time on their iPads, they'll have to ditch the screen time themselves, a Saint John pediatrician says.

A small amount of recreational screen time can be good, but too much can be risky

The Canadian Paediatric Society guidelines released last week describe 'moderate' use of screen time as between two and four hours a day. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

If parents want their kids to spend less time on their iPads, they'll have to ditch the screen time themselves, a Saint John pediatrician says.

Sarah Gander, a general pediatrician, took part in the Canadian Pediatric Society's 96th annual conference in Toronto, where health-care professionals discussed digital use by children and the importance of parents monitoring screen time.

"We want our kids to not necessarily be devoted to the screens all the time, but yet we're on our phones all the time," Sarah Gander said in an interview Monday with Information Morning Fredericton.

The society recently released guidelines for screen time use by children five to 10 years old. 

The guidelines say "moderate" use of screen time would be two to four hours a day. 

The organization found three-quarters of Canadian parents are concerned about how much time their children spend using digital media.

Thirty-six per cent of children 10 to 13 years old spend three hours a day or more using digital devices for purposes that aren't related to school, the society's research suggests.

In younger children, research has found an association between depression symptoms and sedentary behaviour tied to screen time. 

Saint John pediatrician Sarah Gander said parents should mitigate screen time by engaging in interpersonal conversations with family and friends at home. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

In 2017, the society advised that children under the age of two not have any screen time. Children between the ages of three and five should have no more than one hour of screen time a day, and screens should be avoided at least one hour before bed.

Gander said parents should mitigate screen time by engaging in conversation with family and friends at home and keeping screens away at meal time. Physical activity and time spent outdoors should become a priority for children and youth.

At the same time, the society has found digital technology has benefits for children's mental health. Research suggests it allows kids to make stronger, more diverse friendships. An hour of screen time a day age may also be associated with a lower risk of depression, compared with no screen time at all.

"This screen time is just a fun piece of the day," Gander said.

The society suggests creating a family media plan, which would include individualized time and content limits. Media multitasking — using two or more devices at once — should be discouraged, especially during homework, since it can disrupt learning. 

Stress manifesting in children

During the conference, health-care professionals discussed mental illness among children and youth.

Over the past 10 years, Gander said, she has seen a spike in referrals related to children suffering from mental health issues.

"We're certainly seeing that stress manifests in our children every day," she said.

With high poverty rates, stress and trauma, Gander said, New Brunswick children face a lot of adversity, which can be related to mental health issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. 

Gander said her centre in Saint John saw more than 700 referrals related to ADHD alone in 2018. And at her office, it takes between nine and 13 months to see a pediatrician regarding ADHD.

Mental health is top of mind for paediatricians across Canada. Dr. Sarah Gander says there has been an increase in mental health referrals. 10:23
 

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, more than 800,000 Canadian youth experienced significant mental health problems in 2013. Many of them didn't receive treatment.

Gander said more needs to be done to open communication channels among different departments in government. This includes communication among schools, practitioners, mental health and addictions services.

"A lot of our services are siloed into different departments within government. … One of the big things is to start to break down those barriers for communication between people."

Gander also said there needs to be equal access to medication and counselling services. 

With files from Information Morning Fredericton

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