Building healthy habits in kids during their earliest years is one of a parent’s most important—and most challenging—responsibilities. It’s no easy task getting a small child to put down an enthralling screen of moving colors and sounds once they’ve picked it up, and in a modern world with devices constantly beckoning their attention, everything from getting the kids outside to getting them to sleep at a reasonable hour can be a real struggle. But new research is giving parents around the world a good reason to really focus on creating healthier habits for their family: Having just the right amount of sleep, exercise, and limited screen time (yes, all three!) might be key to developing young people’s brain power.
A new study, published in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, sought to determine how the three habits affect children’s cognitive performance during a typical 24-hour period. Researchers used The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth, which were released in 2016, as a benchmark. For kids aged 8 to 11 years, the guidelines recommend at least 60 minutes of physical activity, no more than two hours of recreational screen time, and nine to 11 hours of nighttime sleep per day.
The cross-sectional observational study examined the habits and abilities of 4,524 U.S. children in that age range. It might not come as a surprise that researchers found nearly two out of every three U.S. kids spend more than two hours a day looking at devices. Overall, the survey revealed that only 5 percent of children met all three guidelines, and 29 percent of them didn’t meet any of them.
The kids were assessed on their memory, language, planning abilities, and speed with completing mental tasks through a series of tests. Confirming most parents’ worst fears, children who had more than two hours of screen time daily performed worse on the tests than kids who spent less time in front of a device. Children who spent under two hours on screens scored, on average, about 4 percent higher on thinking-related tests than the kids who didn’t meet any of the screen, exercise, or sleep guidelines.
“Without consideration of what kids are actually doing with their screens, we’re seeing that the two-hour mark actually seems to be a good recommendation for benefiting cognition,” said Jeremy Walsh, an exercise physiologist at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan and one of the study authors, to Science News.
Cognitive ability improved for kids with each additional recommendation they met. (But interestingly, neither sleep alone nor physical activity alone affected performance. Screen time, even by itself, did. That suggests screen time might have a particularly important effect on children’s performance.)
Overall, these findings offer a “holy trinity” of healthy habits for parents to encourage in their children to ensure they’re growing up with sharp, strong minds. But of course, knowing is just the first step. The real battle comes with figuring out how to actually implement these recommended behaviors in your child’s day-to-day life.
Not sure where to begin? Building healthy habits in your children starts with leading by example, health coach Chris Freytag tells mbg. If you exercise regularly, your kids are more likely to follow suit. If you make a good night’s sleep a priority, your kids are more likely to get their quota of shut-eye. And if you don’t spend several hours a day glued to your smartphone, your kids might just put up less of a fight when you set rules about screen time.
“You can’t ask your kids to do things you don’t do,” Freytag says. “You can’t ask them to eat their veggies if you never do, nor can you preach the health benefits of exercise if you never get out there and sweat. Your kids are watching you. Your actions speak volumes.”