These days it’s impossible to turn left or right without coming across a screen. Television, smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles ensure that we are almost constantly immersed in a digital bubble. It’s hard enough to unplug from that bubble as an adult - so what does that mean for our children?
The answer to this is surprisingly complicated, because the world today is very different than the one many parents grew up in! It used to be that addressing screen exposure was as simple as limiting a child’s time in front of the TV. Experts recommended no more than two hours in front of the TV for kids over age 2.
But today, that is just not practical. Children and adolescents are now able to consume content via traditional broadcasting, streaming services, video games, social media, and apps. Some of that content is purely for fun, while some of it can supplement educational activities. And because of technology’s use and prevalence in our lives, the average amount of time children spend in front of a screen and consuming media increases as they age. This is why it’s more important than ever for parents to engage with their children about their media habits.
So How Much Is Too Much?
In today’s world, the best thing parents can do is learn when digital tech use crosses from normal and healthy into what we call “pixel addiction” territory. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning. Too much screen time can also harm the amount and quality of sleep.”
To fight back against the negative effects of screen exposure and media use, experts recommend controlling and monitoring the use of media outside of education related screen time. Encouraging children to make time for their physical health and for social interactions can help them develop a healthy balance with their screen and tech. However, it’s important to note that having a cut-off time for screen use is also important. Since screen-light can ruin our ability to sleep, unplugging at least two hours before going to bed is a great rule to set for your family.
To help children learn how to balance and control their digital lives, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that families develop a media plan that considers the health, education, and entertainment needs of every child and family member in a household. As is so often the case with children, their media needs will evolve over time! A few key milestone recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics include the following:
- “For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.
- For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
- For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
- Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
- Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.”
We would also add a guideline of monitoring your children for signs of children becoming overstimulated or negatively affected by their screen use. This guided quiz from PsychologyToday.com can help you identify some signs of distress due to overuse of screens and devices.
While these guidelines can feel ambiguous, the good news is that these open-ended recommendations give your family power and control over your own screen use. Boundaries can and should be navigated by families together to ensure that screen time and media use don’t interfere with a child’s physical health, mental health, education, or general livelihood. They may change from year to year or even season to season, all depending on your family’s schedules, goals, and expectations.
Not sure how to get started? HealthyChildren.org, run by the American Academy of Pediatrics, offers a Family Media Plan tool that can help your family create media use goals and stick to them. And once you’ve established those goals and written out a plan, consider having the family sign a contract and holding them to their promises!
Still feeling overwhelmed? Capital Area Pediatrics can help! Our team can address any of your questions or concerns about screen use and its impact on your family as individuals. To schedule an appointment with a pediatrician, find your nearest location and our staff will be happy to assist you!