Debate over what constitutes a healthy amount of screen time for kids is a hot topic these days. Opinions are all over the map: Some touting the educational and social benefits of early immersion in technology, while others warn that screens could be the new heroin of the digital age.

If the conflicting advice leaves you feeling overwhelmed, take heart. We have answers from the experts.

What is screen time really doing to your kids brain?

To help clear away any confusion, let’s go straight to the new screen time recommendations set forth by the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP). We’ll also discuss the psychology behind these recommendations. Plus share a few tips to help you implement a healthy media diet into your family’s daily routine. (And don’t forget to download our FREE My Family Media Standards guide below.)

More to learning than meets the eye

It’s impossible to ignore the benefit of modern technology for dispensing information. In fact, schools often encourage the use of personal devices in the classroom as a learning aid. Many districts go so far as to provide tablets or laptops to their students for both classroom and home use.

But there’s more to childhood development than gathering facts and data. Childhood is distinguished by the achievement of cognitive milestones—stages of brain development that are incredibly dependent on a child’s interaction with the world around them. Research indicates that too much technology at the wrong time could actually interfere with normal growth and development.

Areas of concern include how the use of technology impacts attention span, relationship skills and overall distraction. These foundational building blocks are acquired during critical stages of development, but last a lifetime.

Getting along in the new digital reality

Knowing why it’s important to proceed cautiously with technology is a good first step. However, let’s be honest, practicing screen time moderation in today’s digital reality can take herculean effort. (If your house is like mine, it’s hard to keep up with the number of devices floating around). How our kids engage with screens in the coming years is likely to become more profound, not less. So, what’s the answer?

According to the AAP, it’s about adhering to strict guidelines in the early years. Then as kids begin school, parents should help them develop a balance between healthy screen time (including entertainment) and productive non-screen activities.

In other words, we need to become media mentors to our kids. Dr. Jenny Radesky recommends:

“Families should proactively think about their children’s media use and talk with children about it, because too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk, or sleep,”

To help kids thrive in the new digital reality the AAP has put forward the following age-by-age screen time recommendations.

Age-by-age screen time recommendations

Infants and toddlers: Prioritize creative playtime without screen time

  • Hold off on all media until 18 months of age
  • When media is introduced ensure that it high quality educational programming
  • Parents of toddlers should sit with them while engaged in media

Preschool years (age 2-5): Prioritize face-to-face social interaction

  • Limit daily media use to one hour
  • Co-view media with children
  • Help them apply what they are viewing to the world around them

School years (6 and older): Balance media use with other healthy behaviors

  • Place consistent limits on time spent using media, and the type of media
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving
  • Designate media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety

Some things are worth the wait

It’s no secret that tablets and smartphones are the ultimate shortcut tools of our day. For kids especially, we have to make certain we don’t take so many shortcuts that we circumvent critical opportunities for brain development.

For example, Dr. Liraz Margalit points out that interactive digital stories may do too much of thinking on behalf of the child. Digital alternatives certainly shouldn’t replace good old-fashioned storytelling by mom or dad.

”Unlike a mother reading a story to a child… a smartphone-told story spoon-feeds images, words, and pictures all at once to a young reader. Rather than having to take the time to process a mother’s voice into words, visualize complete pictures and exert a mental effort to follow a storyline, kids who follow stories on their smartphones get lazy. The device does the thinking for them, and as a result, their own cognitive muscles remain weak.”

Balance, balance, balance

Bear in mind that screen time recommendations set forth by the AAP are just that —recommendations. There will be days when you know you’ve crossed the line and everyone’s binged a little too much. Don’t panic! Your family’s success rests in the ability to step back, evaluate where you are and reset in ways that will get you back on track.

Remember that real problems arise when screen time starts to displace physical activity, hands-on exploration, face-to-face social interaction in the real world, and even sleep. All of which is critical to learning.

Help kids carefully consider how to take ownership of the technology available to them, so that technology doesn’t end up owning them.

3 Tips for a healthy media diet in your home

1. Provide kids with plenty of non-screen opportunities each day. Given a choice most kids will gravitate towards technology. Studies indicate that teens often spend as much as 9 hours a day on media. This include gaming, social media, TV and music. Help kids unplug. Begin early to involve them in organized community activities, look for ways get them outdoors, plan family outings on a regular basis (leave your phone at home too).

2. Device free dinners and drives. Most of us are on board with device free dinners, but device free drives may be a new concept. If you think about it, it’s another great way to encourage meaningful “side by side” (less intimidating) conversation among family members or simply time with their own thoughts (remember daydreaming?). With screens and WiFi built in to many newer vehicles, it can be tempting to plug in every time we buckle up. Try cutting back on in car screen time.

Watch as Will Ferrell demonstrates (as only he can) how devices easily distract from quality family time:

3. Delay social media until at least 13 years of age. Sometimes parents worry that kids will feel left out if they’re not connected with the latest communication trends. However, it’s important to remember that on social media, kids aren’t just influenced by peers in their circle of friends; there is pressure to keep up with trendsetters from all over the globe. Plus, the ever present threat of pornography. For more on this subject read, 5 Reasons Why Social Media is Not Smart for Middle School Kids

You CAN enjoy healthy screen time

In the end the best way to approach the AAP’s new screen time recommendations is to consider all the things you can do to create a healthy media environment in your home. Kids respond best when they are involved in the decision-making processes. This can start when they are toddlers and carry on through their teen years.

At Protect Young Minds, we firmly believe that when kids are given correct information and careful guidance they CAN learn to make healthy online choices.

FREE Family Media Guide template

As you discuss healthy screen time recommendations with your family, make sure kids know which media is good and which media is not. Start the conversation today with our downloadable guide, My Family Media Standards. Get your FREE guide by clicking on the image below:

Marilyn Evans
Marilyn Evans lives east of Toronto with her husband and five sons. Concerned with the ease of access to online pornography, she began searching for ways to address this subject with her own children. Frustrated with the lack of resources and information available to parents at the time she began speaking out about the harms of porn anyone who would listen. After a concerted but somewhat futile effort to gain the attention of her school board Marilyn felt her voice would be better served in the blogosphere. Over the past two years she has written regular articles for Parents Aware, as well as guest posting for Strength to Fight, and recently published an opinion article in Education Canada. She is thrilled to add her voice to the community at Protect Young Minds.
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