It’s probably not new information for you. American children are now spending more time on the “screens” in their lives than on any other single activity.

According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children and teens were spending 50 or more hours a week in front of some kind of screen. That includes about 24 hours a week watching television, perhaps nine or 10 hours a week playing video games and the rest of the time cruising the Internet and using social media.

That 50 hours does not include the time using the computer in school for educational purposes or at home for homework — which for most kids means they are logged on for another substantial period of time.

That was four years ago. My guess is that kids in 2014 are spending even more time looking at pixels.

To put that in perspective: There are 168 hours in a week. Allowing for 8 hours a night for sleep, we have 112 awake hours per week. Subtract 50 hours of screen time, and it leaves only 62 hours a week (or a little more than 8 hours a day) for everything else – school (which takes 6 hours plus transportation time), activities, homework, time with family and friends, and eating meals.

Kids spend a total of 1,080 hours per year in school. But they spend, on average, 2,600 hours a year watching TV. When you divide that 2,600 hours by 16 hours a day of awake time, kids are spending 162 days per year watching a screen of some sort for entertainment! Have I got your attention yet?

The result of all this screen time? Not only are kids often wasting their time watching and participating in mindless activity. That would be bad enough. But the fact is that it’s hurting our kids on all levels:

  • We have an obesity epidemic because our kids have become couch potatoes. Not only are they inactive, but most people snack while watching television.
  • Our kids are spending more time with the screens than they are with their parents, siblings and extended families. A legitimate question is: Who is teaching the kids? Values are being formed in response to what’s on the screens more than from older and wiser adults.
  • The kids aren’t learning how to interact comfortably with other people face to face. They aren’t learning how to listen to others or how to participate meaningfully in conversation. When exchanges are limited by 140 character texts or “likes” and comments on Facebook, there isn’t room for expanding on ideas and getting to know people in depth.
  • With reduced practice with the social world, the kids aren’t learning to manage their emotions. With their primary role models coming from the media, they have a skewed idea of love, relationships and decent human behavior.
  • Kids’ attention spans are becoming so reduced that they don’t have the patience to try and try again when they don’t succeed in a task. They just move on to the next source of stimulation. Sadly, many schools are accommodating the short attention span and reducing time spent on tasks. Recently, I actually read an article for professors that advocated that we give students shorter readings because they won’t stick with more lengthy articles. Think about what that means for how deeply undergrads expect to master a subject.

All screen time isn’t bad, of course. Like anything else, how — and how much — it is used is more important than the fact that it is part of American life. It is part of the culture. A kid who isn’t engaged with media at least to some extent becomes an outsider with the peer group and may be at a competitive disadvantage at school and eventually in the workplace.

Some games do teach kids how to be team players. There is some argument that video games improve hand/eye coordination. Some games even get kids moving. And used well, the Internet is a wonderful source of information and fertile ground for exploring.

That being said, it’s up to us parents to take responsibility for our children’s social, developmental, emotional and intellectual growth by making sure screen time doesn’t take up a disproportionate amount of their time. Wringing our hands and agreeing that yes, it’s awful that the kids are being deprived of important learning by their involvement with screens is not enough. We have to get active and do something about it.

7 antidotes to too much screen time:

  1. Resist the lure of the screens yourself. Our most important job is as a role model for our kids. Turn off the TV. Get off the computer. Put down the phone. Now get active in other pursuits, especially activities that involve the kids.
  2. Get yourself and the kids outdoors. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids get 60 minutes of activity a day. Yes, send them outside for independent play. But also get out there with them.
  3. Ban electronics during meals. Kids who thrive in life are kids who learn how to talk and listen from the adults who love them. Kids who do well in school are those whose parents are genuinely interested in sharing information and airing different opinions. Linger over dinner. Introduce interesting topics. Ask for their opinions. Play word games.
  4. Keep TVs and computers out of the kids’ rooms. (More than one-half of American households now have three TVs. Is this really necessary?) You’ll have more control over what and when they watch.
  5. Keep the computer in the kitchen or living room where you can easily monitor what sites your children are visiting and what they are doing. Have clear rules about what is age-appropriate and in line with your family values. Establish a daily time limit for use that isn’t school-related.
  6. Do not allow the smartphones and TVs to be in use when they are supposed to be studying or completing a school project. They need to learn how to focus if they are to succeed in school.
  7. Be true to your own values. Don’t be impressed by a kid’s whine that everyone else is watching such and such a show or playing this or that video game. If you think the show or game in question is too violent, has too much foul language, is too sexually explicit or has content that is counter to the values you want to teach, carefully explain it to your child or teen and then shut it off. They don’t have to agree. You’re the parent.

Our kids’ time is precious. They will never learn as easily and as well as when they are young. It is up to us as parents to teach them how to develop their social, physical and intellectual skills as well as their expertise with technology.