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New guidelines help you set boundaries for kids' screen time

December 06, 2016

For many parents, updated recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics on children’s media use feel long overdue.

Pediatricians have advised for many years: “no screen time under two years of age” and “two hours per day of screen time,” but if you’re like me, this advice has seemed woefully inadequate as I navigate the increasingly complex digital world with my children.

I won’t mislead you by saying that these new recommendations will solve every issue in your home regarding your children’s screen time, but pediatricians have taken the next step in further clarifying for us how to set reasonable boundaries on this ever-changing aspect of child-rearing. 

Advice for parents of infants and toddlers (0 to two years of age)

Not much has changed about the recommendations for children under two years of age. Scientific study has reaffirmed that children in this age group need real-life experiences to learn, and they are unable to translate what they see on a screen into real life. Infants and toddlers develop the necessary thinking, language, motor, social and emotional skills from one-on-one interactions with a caregiver, not from a screen. The more time kids spend in front of a TV, tablet or smartphone screen, the less time they spend actively engaged with you. You are their most valuable learning tool.

For parents who want to let their young children experience the digital world through educational apps or television programming, it is best to experience these things alongside your child and reteach it to them in a real-world scenario. The digital media may aid you in teaching, but it cannot replace you.

Advice for parents of preschoolers (ages 2 to 5)

Pediatricians have four main concerns about screen time in this age group:

Obesity

More screen time in this age group means more weight gain and greater risk of obesity later in life. Exposure to food advertising and eating while watching television may play a role.

Sleep 

The longer a child spends in front of a screen, the more minutes of sleep they are likely to lose. Electronics in a kid’s bedroom and the exposure to the light from a screen at nighttime may contribute to this.

Development

Studies have shown a connection between excessive television viewing and delays in development of language and thinking skills as well as social and emotional competencies. The earlier a child is exposed to digital media and the more hours spent in front of a screen during the preschool years, the more likely a child is to struggle with the necessary skills for a successful start to school.   

Behavior 

The types of programming a child watches can impact their behavior. Studies have shown that replacing violent programming with educational content or content that promotes positive social interaction results in significant improvements in behavior.

For preschool-aged children, some television shows can help children learn. However, studies have shown that many programs parents would consider educational do not meet the standard needed for such development. The American Academy of Pediatrics specifically recommends Sesame Street and other programming by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), as these shows have demonstrated effectiveness in teaching early literacy skills to preschoolers.

Many of the skills children need for success in school cannot be learned from a screen; they are only developed through unstructured play opportunities with peers, and one-on-one interactions between a parent and child.

It’s important to note, however, that it isn’t just literacy skills that are necessary for school success. Many of the skills children need for success in school are things such as persisting in completing a task, regulating their emotions, controlling their impulses and creative thinking. These cannot be learned from a screen; they are only developed through unstructured play time, opportunities for play among their peers, and one-on-one interactions between a parent and child.

Limit preschoolers to 1 hour per day of screen time in order to allow plenty of opportunities for the real-life learning they need. Also, keep in mind that content is king. When children sit down in front of a screen, be sure that what they are watching is educational and teaches positive social interactions that encourage friendships and social acceptance.

 

Advice for parents of school-aged kids (ages 5 to 18)

It’s important in this age group to acknowledge that digital media brings opportunity for both positive and negative outcomes. Traditional and social media can expose children and teens to new information, raise awareness of current events and issues as well as promote community engagement and learning. Teens often find much-needed support networks online when they are dealing with hardships such as illness, disability or questions of sexuality and gender.

However, there are also potential pitfalls, many of them similar to those outlined above for younger kids, plus those that come with more autonomy online.

Obesity 

The more time a child spends in sedentary screen time, the greater the likelihood of that child becoming obese. Snacking while watching TV and food advertising are contributing factors.

Sleep

Kids with more social media exposure or who sleep with mobile devices or televisions in their rooms tend to have more sleep disturbances, which can in turn have a negative effect on school performance.

Risk behaviors 

Exposure through media to alcohol, tobacco use or sexual behaviors is associated with earlier initiation of these behaviors. Also, content shared among peers via social media may expose teens to unhealthy behaviors such as self injury, eating disorders, sexual behaviors or substance abuse.

Mental health 

Heavy internet use in teens has been associated with depression. Online bullying is also a major concern as the internet allows anonymity and a rapid spread of information.

Privacy

Sexting occurs in approximately 12% of teens, and online activity can create opportunity for sexual exploitation of children by sex offenders.  

There are no one-size-fits-all recommendations for this age group, so pediatricians recommend a personalized approach to setting boundaries for your family. Consider the age, health, development and temperament of each child in your household as well as the potential problems that can develop as listed above. 

As you set boundaries on media use in your home, consider developing a Family Media Use Plan specific to the needs of your family. Here is a helpful online tool to help you do so: Media Use Plan. Discuss these plans with your pediatrician and enlist his or her advice as well.

Remember that kids and teens need plenty of physical activity, adequate sleep and time away from screens. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to set a good example. Your kids are watching you, too!

Here are some excellent resources for further review:

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