Behavior & Development • Oct 12, 2015

How much screen time is OK for kids? New guidelines on children and media use from the American Academy of Pediatrics

For years pediatricians have said that kids shouldn’t have more than 2 hours per day of recreational screen time, and children under age 2 should not have any screen time. But these recommendations are outdated; they were made prior to the invention of the iPad and before most Americans had smartphones.  Finally, the 2-hour screen time rule may be over, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, but kids still need limits. As for my family, we’ve come up with some simple screen-time rules that we can actually stick to and are consistent with the AAP’s new recommendations. I’ve listed our family’s plan at the end of this article. But first, let’s understand why and how the AAP made these new guidelines on children and media use.

Coming up with a strict hourly limit on screen time defies our best research. Technology has advanced faster than the research can be done. We know that at least 30 percent of U.S. children first play with a mobile device as an infant or toddler, according to Common Sense Media, but I suspect this number is even higher now as the number of Americans with smartphones skyrockets. Almost 75 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have smartphones, and 24 percent admit using their phones almost constantly, according to the Pew Research Center.

In an effort to help parents come up with realistic guidelines for digital media use, the American Academy of Pediatrics held a symposium of experts in May, 2015, known as “Growing Up Digital: Media Research Symposium.” Leading social science, neuroscience and media researchers, educators, pediatricians, and others came together to evaluate available research and provide practical advice to parents. Here are their key messages for parents:

• Set limits at every age. Limit-setting is key in digital media use — just like in diet, behavior, sleep, and parenting in general. Parenting strategies are the same across various environments, including screen media.

• Avoid displacement/social isolation. When using digital media, parents should consider what it is displacing, and strive to maintain protected time for conversation, play and creativity. Neuroscience research shows that very young children learn best via two-way communication. “Talk time” between caregiver and child remains critical for language development. Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers. The more media engender live interactions, the more educational value they may hold (e.g., a toddler chatting by video with a parent who is traveling). Optimal educational media opportunities begin after age 2, when media may play a role in bridging the learning achievement gap.

• Address digital etiquette. Children and young adults must learn that online interactions should follow the same social guidelines as face-to-face encounters. Conversations about appropriate content, etiquette, empathy and safety should occur early to provide a foundation for all digital media use.

• Engage in using digital media together. Parents were advised to let their children show them what they are doing online; this helps children feel empowered and helps the parent learn while both are engaged. While classic parent-child activities, like reading a story or playing a game, look different in digital formats, it remains important to value time spent together. For infants and toddlers, make your best effort to avoid using digital media as a babysitter or “iPacifier,” but instead try to use media together with them.

• Create definitive media-free zones. Create media-free zones, such as during meal times and at bedtime, and set aside specific days or hours as “media-free” periods. Parents should also eliminate background TV, which dramatically reduces conversation or “talk time” with children.

• Model media behaviors. Adults need to be attentive to their own personal digital media use (or over-use). Parents and other caregivers may ignore their children when using their own devices, and parental behavior provides strong modeling for children’s behavior, including adult digital media use.

• Choose high quality media content for your kids. More than 80,000 apps are labeled as educational, but little research validates their quality. An interactive product requires more than “pushing and swiping” to teach. Look to organizations like Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org) that review age-appropriate apps, games and programs.

So, how much screen time is OK for kids?  I try to keep my kids under 2 hours per day by limiting junky screen time and encouraging educational and interactive media. As long as their homework and chores are done, they can play certain educational games until they are sick of them.  Interestingly, they rarely go over two hours per day. Here is my 2015 list of 15 websites and apps that are educational enough that I will allow my children to play them for an unlimited time, yet fun enough that my kids want to play them. 

What about Minecraft, Lego.com, television shows and the American Girl Doll website?  We call this “junky” screen time, and our kids understand that it is like junk food. A little bit is OK, but too much is not healthy. They do get junky screen time, but only after all their schoolwork and chores are done and they have to use a timer.  If they are aren’t behaving or if they just haven’t been outside all day, there is no junky screentime.  My older kids are so busy with extracurricular activities, schoolwork and chores that there just isn’t time for junky screentime many days. They get used to going without junky screen time, which is a good lifetime habit even for adults.

We finish the day with screen-free dinner and bedtime. Screentime before bed makes it harder for kids to fall asleep, so we try not to use screens after dinner.  Talking and spending time with family before bed prevents sleep anxiety and helps kids get the good night’s sleep they need to wake up ready for a new day.

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