kids and screens
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Here Is How to Decide How Much Screen Time to Give Kids

Oct 21, 2016

The good news is that the American Academy of Pediatrics has finally updated its recommendations on how much time kids should spend on screens to reflect the new role that digital devices play in family lives.

The bad news is what its new guidelines say, which is: it depends. It depends on whether you participate in screen-watching with your kids, how much you can monitor them, whether you're on a plane or your kid is sick, whether you can make sure they only watch high-quality content and if your kid is more independent or more obedient by nature. In short, the bad news is that the new guidelines mean parents have yet more work to do.

It's tempting to say "Hey, AAP, thanks for the assist! We've got all time in the world to think about this."

After all, screens are one of the biggest bugbears of modern western parenting. They're almost unavoidable, they're something our parents didn't have to deal with in quite the same way and nobody yet has good data on how much screen-watching is too much in the long run. All of that makes parents anxious, especially as obesity rates head north and ADHD diagnoses follow.

As Ingrid Simone, executive editor of Toca Boca, a creator of apps for kids, puts it: “Kids today have more media options than ever, and it can be challenging for parents to figure out what's right for their family. The new guidelines do a better job taking into account how much the landscape has changed for kids and media over the last decade.”

But to accommodate the fact that no one set of guidelines fits all, the Academy created an online tool for formulating a plan so that parents and kids can figure out what works best for them.

The online planner is actually probably more useful than one set of strict rules, because it's age-sensitive, and it covers all sorts of issues that parents might not have thought of on their own, such as are there areas of the house where we don't want screens? Are there certain times or curfews for screen use? What content is generally allowed always and what just occasionally? The web planner can be used, in discussion with kids, to come to some agreements before getting kids a phone or signing a new data contract, so that everyone is on the same page.

It takes parents step by step through the kids of things they need to discuss with their kids, like digital safety and how to be a good digital citizen.

It's probably less useful for kids under 5 years old, however, so here's a super quick rundown of the new guidelines:

  • Avoid screens (except video-chatting) in children younger than 18 months.

  • For children ages 18 to 24 months of age, find non-garbage content (hint: no Ryan ToysReview) and participate in it with your kids

  • Don't worry about your kid not having tech skills; they will come fast

  • Limit kids 2 to 5 years old to 1 hour per day of good programming, watch along, and talk to them about it.

  • Kids won't understand stuff that moves too fast and apps with lots of distracting interruptions are best avoided, as is any violent content.

  • Turn off all devices when not in use.

  • Avoid using media as a pacifier. "Although there are intermittent times (eg, medical procedures, airplane flights) when media is useful as a soothing strategy, there is concern that using media as strategy to calm could lead to problems with limit setting or the inability of children to develop their own emotion regulation," says the AAP.

  • Keep an eye on what they're watching or using, try it yourself, talk to them about it.

  • No screens in bedroom, at the meal table or while you're playing with them. Just go ahead and use the do not disturb option on your own phone.

  • Because screens interfere with sleep, no screens for an before bedtime, and keep them somewhere other than the bedroom overnight.

Critics are cautiously praising the Academy's move as more accurately reflecting the world that most families live in. "The focus on balance and high quality content takes into account the extensive social science," says Yalda T. Uhls, author of Media Moms & Digital Dads, whose only criticism was that the allowance for really young kids for "video-chatting" was confusing. Do people understand the difference between that and YouTube? "The most relevant question for [all parents] is how you interact with the media you consume."

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