More Sleep, More Exercise, and Less Screen Time. Why Your Teen’s Health Depends on More of Some and Less of Others

Why parent should insist that teens have less screen time
Less screen time is crucial for the health of our teens. (junpinzon/Shutterstock)

Nothing would get me angrier than when my teenagers would sleep until 2 p.m. on the weekends. That is, when they didn’t have to be force overachieving and resume building at some sports, work, youth group, or volunteer project. As they snoozed well into the afternoon, I thought, “How can anyone sleep for 18 hours straight?” Turns out every teen parent I know was asking themselves that same question, and while we may have been annoyed at our marathon slumbering teens, truth is, our kids needed that extra weekend sleep.

Oh how they needed it.

Though study after study continues to find that later high school start times greatly benefit teenagers in both mental and physical ways, schools seem to not be budging on the issue, and most kids are still seated in a desk and in first period, well before 8 a.m. What follows is 6-7 hours of educational instruction, after school meetings, clubs, and maybe some athletics, then hours of homework that are forcing kids to hit the hay close to- or well after- midnight most weekdays. 

Now, add the fact a huge chunk of time at school and in the evenings is likely spent using tablet, smartphone, and computer screens to learn and complete assignments, as well using all three to socialize with peers, and what you have left are heavy eyed and exhausted teenagers who are in desperate need of some serious ZZZZ’s, as well as more nature and less pixels.

And all of the above in both excess and insufficiency- sleep, physical activity, and screen time- are known risk factors for physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as academic achievement and some at risk behaviors (tobacco use) according to a recent research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.

Noting the significant behavioral and physical consequences of an imbalance of sleep, exercise, and screen time, authors of the research letter made recommendations of what they contend are appropriate amounts of each activity per age. The letter states,

Children (age 6-12 years) sleep 9 to 12 hours and adolescents (age 14-18 years) sleep 8 to 10 hours a night and that both groups accumulate at least 1 hour of moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity and limit screen time (ie, exposure to all screen-based digital media) to less than 2 hours within a 24-hour period.

 They concluded that meeting those recommendations for all 3 behaviors “may have a greater association with health outcomes than meeting any 1 recommendation in isolation.”

But how do we make that happen these days when fast paced school days and frantic extracurricular schedules have become the norm for the modern teenager? We simply can’t turn off the wifi at 8 p.m. every night because how will homework get done?

Kids playing high school sports at least have some physical outlet, but what about the others who work part time after school, help take care of younger siblings, or whose academic and/or social club interests keep their eyes more on computer screens and hi-tech gadgets than on outdoor pursuits? And do our teenagers even have a choice when it comes to being able to reduce their screen time and increase their sleep and exercise, because of how unrealistic and unattainable that truly is within their current schedules?

It may very well be, but educators, parents, and even doctors alike are all recognizing the symptoms that our overworked, over stressed, and under-rested teens are displaying, and we need to begin to better facilitate an environment that more adequately meets their physical and emotional needs.

Two steps parents can take to make that happen include:

Parents need to insist on less screen time and more sleep 

If evening time has everyone in the family- including mom and dad,  staring at screens, then that behavior will not only continue, it will start even earlier with younger kids. When you can, power off all the family screens mutually, allowing only computers for homework to be used, and monitoring their use so only academics (and not social networking) are being done on them.

Use a screen time monitoring app on phones, and together keep track of time spent and wasted on apps that are not school related. You and your teen may not even realize how much time you both spend on Instagram and Facebook until you have solid proof of it. Maybe even make it a competition with rewards for who has been on the least! 

Good sleep hygiene behaviors begin early as well, and when parents make adequate sleep a huge priority early on (think early bedtimes even in the tween years) than those good sleep habits have a better chance of continuing throughout the teen years. Powering down screens earlier in the evenings will also naturally help foster an earlier bedtime for everyone. Remember, as a parent you still may need to tell kids when to go to bed (and make sure they do it!) even when they’re 6 feet tall and 17 years old.

Family exercise time

Make moving your bodies a family priority, and try to find a physical activity that all family members can participate in and enjoy. Also, 60 minutes of exercise per day doesn’t need to be all at once. Breaking it up into 15 minutes of activity can be just as beneficial. Encourage your teens to find and use a fitness app on their phone, or a fitness watch that encourages and rewards movement, and reminds them to get up if they’ve been sedentary for too long.

Staying strong and consistent on monitoring and limiting screen time and fostering enough sleep and exercise will procure great benefits for everyone in the long run-even if it’s initially met with anger and eye rolls, keep it up parents! You’re in charge.


We Need to Rethink Telling our Kids to Follow Their Passion

About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

Read more posts by Melissa

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