If you’re a parent of young children living in the mobile internet era, it’s hard to resist not handing over a smartphone or a tablet to keep kids entertained when you really need them to be the sweet, quiet little angels you wish that they could be pretty much all the time. There are all sorts of great video and gaming apps designed for kids anyway, so why not?

It’s not the kid-friendly content you have to worry about – it’s the effect of excessive amounts of screen time your kids are being exposed to on a regular basis. The younger they are while their brains are developing rapidly, the more adverse the effects may be. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents of infants and children under the age of two should avoid exposing them to smartphones, tablets, computers, televisions and anything else that serves to entertain people through a screen.

Children who are older may benefit from apps and mobile websites that promote learning, but there’s no question that frequent and prolonged use of mobile devices may create problems in normal, healthy development and everyday habits. Here are some of the things you need to be aware of if you’re a parent who lets their kids play with smartphones or tablets.

They contribute to sleep deprivation.

Any form of media that has a screen emits blue light that tends to mimic daylight in a way that confuses our internal body clocks. Both children and adults rely on their circadian rhythms to regulate their sleep cycles, but when their eyes are exposed to this blue light too late in the evening or at night, it sends a signal to the brain that it’s daytime and that it’s time to stay awake. One study found that infants and toddlers who watched TV were more likely to experience irregular sleep patterns.

If your child has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, make sure you enforce a strict cut-off time for smartphones and other media anywhere from 1 to 3 hours before bedtime. Instead, use this time to read a book to your child or have them read it to you aloud.

They promote sedentary behavior, which contributes to obesity.

Using a smartphone, a tablet or any other form of screen media generally requires a lot of sitting in order to pay attention to it. All children are energetic and have a natural urge to run, jump, skip, climb, dance and play, which helps them develop a strong and healthy heart, lungs, bones, muscles and brain. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that children and adolescents require a minimum of one hour of physical activity every day, and that one-hour minimum should involve moderate-intensity to vigorous-intensity activity.

To keep your kids from spending excessive amounts of time hanging around the house with nothing to do but sit around and entertain themselves with mobile devices, try enrolling them in extra-curricular activities like gymnastics, swimming, baseball or soccer to encourage them to get moving. Or to save some money, you could even just make a habit out of taking regular trips to the park, setting up a swing set in the backyard, scheduling regular play dates with friends or getting your kids to help out with chores around the house.

They can cause eye discomfort.

Although it’s not currently yet known whether staring at screens for long periods of time can cause any permanent damage to the eyes, it certainly is known to cause discomfort. Both children and adults can experience it, but children may be more susceptible to developing symptoms depending on the unique ways that they use their devices. Commonly referred to as “digital eye strain,” symptoms usually include pain, fatigue, blurred vision, headaches and dry eyes.

In addition to simply reducing the amount of time that kids spend looking at the screens of smartphones and other electronics devices, parents should take care to schedule annual eye examinations for their kids, teach them to position devices at an appropriate distance from their faces when using them, adjust the brightness of devices and instruct them to take breaks every 10 to 20 minutes that they’ve been staring at devices.

They can cause aches and pains in the neck, shoulders, back, hands, thumbs and other parts of the body.

Smartphone use forces people to tilt their heads down to look at them while moving their wrists and fingers in unnatural ways. Doing this frequently and for prolonged periods can cause pain and even permanent damage to bones and joints in the upper part of the body – especially the neck and spine. According to one leading Australian chiropractor interviewed by The Daily Mail Australia, an increasing number of children and teens are becoming hunchbacks because of their smartphone addictions.

The damage can be worsened by a sedentary lifestyle, so parents should encourage their kids to take frequent breaks and get physically active on a daily basis. It’s also worth talking to kids about the importance of proper body positioning when using their mobile devices and showing them how to lift their devices up higher to promote a more straightforward gaze. Parents can even just tell their kids to use their eyes to focus their gaze downward at the screen as a simple solution to minimizing the need to tilt their heads so much.

They may contribute to shortened attention spans.

Less than 5 percent of children in the U.S. were thought to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) before the early 1990s, but in the following two decades since then, that figure has ballooned to 11 percent, according to the CDC in a report from the New York Times. The rapid increase likely has to do with sociological changes, including how kids use the internet and mobile devices for both educational and leisurely purposes.

Medication can be used to treat children who’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, but even kids who don’t show any signs of the disorder should have strict limitations set by their parents for use of mobile devices. It’s good practice to avoid handing your kids a mobile device to quiet them down and distract them any time they act up. It may be pretty unpleasant to deal with, but focusing on teaching your kids to behave appropriately without technological distraction is far healthier for them in the long run.

They may inhibit the development of social skills.

The American Psychological Association has pointed out that there are currently very few studies and inconsistent findings regarding whether screen time negatively affects children’s social skills. But that’s not to say that it definitely doesn’t play a role. After all, more time spent looking at a mobile device means less time interacting face to face with friends and adults. A UCLA study discovered that overuse of mobile devices among sixth graders had numbed their ability to read human emotions.

In many ways, mobile devices can actually promote good social skills through communication platforms like instant messaging and social media – although not face to face, it can still have a positive impact on children who use it appropriately to support their in-person relationships. Still, parents should monitor their kids’ social behavior and consider talking to them if they suspect a lack of interest in spending time with friends, problems associated with bullying or odd behavior that negatively affects social interaction and relationship building.

They may contribute to higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Children who are old enough to use smartphones and tablets to connect with friends on social networking platforms may be negatively affected by the things that they see and experience. Since they’re still learning about the world around them and where they fit in, it’s common for children to use social media to compare themselves to their friends, invest a lot of energy into posting to impress others, and even worry about getting enough likes or comments.

A study from the British Psychological Society found that the pressure for teens to be available on social media 24 hours a day and seven days a week was attributed to low self-esteem, poor sleep quality, anxiety and depression.

If you’re a parent of a particularly young child, you should have direct access to their social media accounts and limit the amount of time they can use them from a mobile device. All parents of children and teens should enforce rules about using privacy settings, treating others with respect at all times, and requiring any forms of harassment or cyberbullying to be brought to a parent or teacher’s attention. It’s also worth having regular discussions about the reality of social media so that kids can gain a clearer understanding of how it doesn’t necessarily reflect people’s real lives, and how certain forms of activity can lead to bad consequences.

They may impair brain structure and function.

Numerous studies have shown that excessive amounts of screen time damages the brain by causing gray matter atrophy, compromising white matter integrity, reducing cortical thickness, impairing cognitive functioning and debilitating dopamine function. A lot of the damage occurs in the frontal lobe part of the brain, which undergoes the most drastic changes in the early teen years to mid-twenties, and can affect everything from a person’s relationship building skills to their overall sense of well being. Even children who aren’t technically “addicted” to mobile devices are at risk of suffering damage to their developing brains if they’re regular users who spend several hours a day using them.

It’s time to take screen time limits seriously. According to integrative psychiatrist Dr. Dunckley, parents can eliminate their children’s risk of impaired brain structure and function by limiting screen time to two hours or less a day. She suggests that parents get their kids to do an electronic “fast” or “detox” lasting about 3 to 4 weeks as a way to reset the brain as opposed to moderately scaling back.

Smartphones have essentially changed the world as we know it, and even as adults, we need to be careful with how we use them. Children, however, are much more susceptible to experiencing more problems. Parents should educate themselves on best practices related to kids and mobile device use, stay conscious of their kids’ habits and work with them find the right balance in using them.

Featured photo credit: Randen Pederson via flickr.com

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