Patti Skelton-McGougan | Screen overtime: How and why parents should set limits

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of quality (emphasis added) television and videos a day for older children and no screen time at all for children under age 2.

If that sounds like a pipe dream your hardwired household will never achieve, you may want to read on.

Busy parents, particularly single, working parents, often don’t have the time or the energy to consistently play screen police when they’re trying to get dinner ready or the laundry done or the bills paid. Truth be told, many of us have used the TV as a babysitter from time to time.

Yet there are compelling reasons to limit your child’s screen time, be it television, computer or video games.

Children who spend more time outside playing and/or being socially engaged (I’m not talking texting or chatting, here) are less likely to be overweight and have sleep and behavioral problems and more likely to do better in school, both academically and socially.

“Kids need to interact with people face to face,” says Debbi Halela, director of general counseling services for YES. “It’s so important for good social skills. If they don’t have that practice or are spending too many hours in front of the computer, they won’t have that social comfort level.”

YES counselors have worked with teens who have gotten so wrapped up in their computer and video worlds that they have become socially isolated and depressed, developed sleep irregularities and missed school.

Electronic games offer instant gratification, easy mastery and “a safe haven” for adolescents and teens during what can be a stressful and awkward time in their lives. It comes as no surprise to any parent who’s faced a fight over limits that the games can be addictive.

Debbi recommends that parents maintain good, open communication with their children and talk to them about why they want to limit or reduce their screen time. She suggests providing screen-free alternatives, including after-school activities, sports, books, board games, crafts and cooking.

Screen time can be used as an incentive for doing homework or chores – so many minutes doing math buys so many minutes on the computer or TV – but don’t let the reward usurp family time and sleep, particularly during the school week.

Here are some other tips and tools for parents to consider:

Parental-control devices, cable settings and software allow you to restrict your child’s computer use and television viewing when you can’t be there. If you’re unsure where you start, check with your local cable and Internet provider for more information.

Keep TVs and computers in common areas of your home and out of kids’ bedrooms.

Talk to your child about Internet dangers and on-line safety.

Turn off the TV if you’re not watching a specific program.

Don’t eat in front of the TV (or the computer for that matter).

Bring back the family meal for good food and better bonding. If activities and conflicting schedules make that difficult, make one night a week a family night. No screens, just dinner, conversation and maybe a walk through the neighborhood or lively game of Monopoly.

Watch TV together or have your child teach you how to play a computer game. Again, we’re talking bonding/teaching opportunities.

Set a good example. Limit your own screen time and engage in and encourage other pastimes.