How Much Screen Time Should Children Get Every Day?
Kids seem surrounded by screens these days and are bombarded by electronic media from streaming videos to the latest games and apps. For a long time, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was strict, recommending no screen time before age 2, and no more than 1 to 2 hours per day after that. But in October 2015, the group revised and softened its guidelines. Now, it encourages parents to keep screen time to a minimum, choose quality content, and focus on interacting and learning.
Little to no screen time is a great goal, and you might agree – in theory. But reality tends to get in the way of a parent’s best intentions. Maybe you started out by banning TV, but then your preschooler got hold of your iPad and is now tapping and swiping like a pro.
Or maybe the rules you carefully established with kid #1 got bent – or were tossed entirely – by the time kid #2 came on the scene. According to a BabyCenter survey, 4 out of 5 toddlers are watching movies, television shows, or online videos and 85 percent of moms are happy to hand their preschooler their smartphone. Half of kids get their own tablet by age 5. Plus, 1 out of 10 kids between the ages of 5 and 8 are allowed unlimited use of the Internet without parental monitoring.
Screen time almost inevitably increases as kids get older. Figuring out what’s best for you, your child, and your family feels like picking through a media minefield, says Lisa Guernsey, co-author of Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens. The technology is moving fast, and with so many new products designed and marketed to young kids, parents often end up feeling guilty or overwhelmed.
What counts as “screen time”?
Let us count the ways: Screen time is any time a child spends looking at an electronic screen, including watching videos and television shows, playing video games, and interacting with smartphones, tablets, and computers. You might not think twice about letting your child fiddle with your iPhone or look at a book on your iPad, and it’s tempting to share silly YouTube videos or cute photos on Instagram. Not only that, but in school or on playdates, your kids may be using devices or playing games they don’t have access to at home.
The concerns about kids and screen time
No matter how you handle the issue in your own house, there’s a strong case to be made that too much screen time can be harmful to kids. Here are some of the top concerns parents might want to keep in mind.
- Behavior issues: High media use has been linked to shorter attention spans, hyperactivity, ADHD, and aggressive behavior. In a study from Johns Hopkins, toddlers and preschoolers who spent two or more hours in front of screens each day were found to have more behavior problems and poor social skills.
- Weight issues: It seems obvious, right? If you’re in front of a screen, you’re not moving. Studies have confirmed that too much screen time contributes to childhood obesity, and that reducing screen time helps reverse the trend.
- Sleep issues: The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned against keeping screens in kids’ bedrooms, reporting that even small screens like phones and tablets can be linked to poor sleep quality. One reason may be that the light emitted by screens delays melatonin release and actually makes it harder to fall asleep. Content matters, too. A study in Pediatrics found that when parents modified the kind of media their preschoolers consumed (avoiding violent shows or games), the kids slept better at night.
- Social and emotional development: Parents’ biggest worry is how screen time might hurt development, and there is evidence, especially regarding social skills. Research at UCLA found that sixth graders who spent a mere five days away from screen media (smartphones, tablets, and computers) scored better on tests for reading emotional cues.
- Unhealthy habits: A screen-time habit can be hard to break. One study looked at the number of hours 4-year-olds spent watching TV and found that the more time they spent watching, the tougher the habit was to break when they were 6. As kids get older, many parents worry about dependent and addictive tendencies.
Balancing the recommendations with real life
The problem for many well-meaning parents is that rules for limiting or prohibiting screen time can be rigid and hard to enforce. What to do? Guernsey suggests using the “three C’s” to help you decide when screen time is okay:
1.Content: What is my child watching or playing with? Can she understand what she’s doing or potentially learn from it?
2.Context: What has my child’s day been like so far? Have we talked and interacted a lot, or has he been plugged in for hours?
3.The individual child: Is it a difficult time of day during which a little time on her own with a screen would be soothing or helpful to my kid?
“Thinking about the three C’s in the moment, when you’re trying to decide whether to let your child play with a tablet or watch a show, helps you make better, more mindful choices,” says Guernsey.
When are kids getting their own phones and tablets?
A BabyCenter survey found that smartphones and tablets are big among the little-kid set: About 85 percent of parents allow their children ages 2 to 8 to use their smartphones, and nearly half of kids that age have their own tablet. Some start with “kiddie” versions, like the LeapPad, but more jump straight to the real thing, such as the iPad. Parents say that they buy children phones for safety and convenience – they want to be able to reach them and know where they are. But predictably, kids have different interests. Their favorite activities are playing games and watching videos.
Some parents hold off on devices, some ease in by letting a child play with an old iPhone, and others aren’t really concerned if Grandma wants to give everyone iPads for Christmas. No matter what approach you take, be aware of what your kids are up to and find ways to moderate how and when devices are used.
Even if your child’s tablet is stocked with age-appropriate (or so you presume) apps, games, and e-books, the reality is that devices can be distracting. Kids are quick to jump from one game to another or just mindlessly click around. And screens entice kids away from time spent with books, toys, sports and outdoor play, arts, and each other’s company.
Are e-readers just as good as traditional books?
Even if you’re only using devices for reading, your kid may be missing out. A study from Temple University revealed that parents ask their child fewer questions about the story when reading an e-book together. Your child is going to get the most out of any reading experience if you sit with her and talk about what’s happening (“What might happen next?” “Remember when you tried strawberry ice cream, too?”). Tablets have lots of fun buttons and lights, and it’s easy to get distracted by the device rather than focusing on the story.
The lesson here: While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional e-book, keep reading traditional books to your child. And when you do rely on tablets or apps, try to treat the stories in the same way as you would a story in a regular book: asking questions, making observations, getting your child involved.
Are there any benefits from “educational” apps, games, or shows?
Lots of TV shows, games, and apps claim to be educational, but it’s a loose term. As of late 2015, there were a whopping 80,000 apps categorized by Apple as “educational,” and more are being developed and released all the time. As a parent, you can try to assess what’s appropriate for your child’s age and stage, but it’s hard to understand what’s going to contribute to real learning. As one research study surmised, today’s children “are in the midst of a vast, unplanned experiment, surrounded by digital technologies that were not available but five years ago.”
If you can find them, there are some great games and apps on the market that reinforce reading, math, and other skills. “We have some really nice evidence that kids are able to learn from a video or game that’s been well designed,” says Guernsey. A study at Kyoto University found that 4-year-olds could identify more words in a picture book that they’d had narrated to them digitally. The emphasis should be on well designed, agrees Colleen Russo, who has studied educational apps and games at Vanderbilt University.
One great tip: Watch as a game is being played. “If a player keeps getting the same question wrong [say, on a spelling game], does it prompt him to go back to the original lesson?” she says. Look, too, for what are called “hot spots,” or just random opportunities to click that aren’t connected to the story or game. Free games and apps raise a red flag – your kid may end up with annoying and sometimes inappropriate banner ads. Check reviews, too: Common Sense Media evaluates games and apps for age-appropriateness and educational value.
My child seems interested in computers and coding – how can I support that?
But wait, don’t we want our children to be tech-smart? To be tech-literate, at least, if not the next Steve Jobs? Yes, sure we do. But it’s not just a matter of exposing kids to technology, notes Lisa Guernsey. It’s about teaching them to think critically about technology. That is, it’s not just being able to manipulate a mouse, navigate to YouTube, or be the fastest finger-swiper in kindergarten. Children, with their parents’ and teachers’ guidance, “should ideally be developing an understanding of how tech is used to communicate, exchange ideas, and build knowledge,” says Guernsey.
Toward that end, you can start reinforcing the concept of technology as a tool. If you want to help your children understand digital media, “take the time to explain what you’re doing around tech yourself,” Guernsey says. If you’re looking up a map and directions to your son’s T-ball game, show him what that looks like and how cool it is. Explain the difference between technologies that help you do your job or manage your life (FaceTime for meetings with your boss or paying your bills online), and those that are merely fun.
If your kid wonders where all this cool tech comes from, tell her that there are people who get the awesome job of making this stuff, which she can learn how to do, too. Ask your child’s school how they are introducing the kids to technology. If you think you have a future software engineer at home, look into programming classes and camps – and yes, download some games and apps. But first, tell your child to go play outside for a while.
Tips for managing your kids’ screen time
- Monitor your own screen use: Kids learn by example, so if you’re responding to every ping and trill of your own device, you have far less authority to limit your child’s screen time. Waiting for a table at a restaurant? Instead of scrolling through Facebook or distractedly answering work emails, engage your child – play tic-tac-toe on a napkin, try a round of “I Spy,” or just talk.
- Hold off on buying kids their own devices: The logic is simple – it’s easier to control the use of an item that you hold the keys to, so to speak, than one they “own.” Debra, a mom of three, lets her children use her iPad, but only at her discretion. It’s a move partly based on price (you buy one instead of three!).
- Set up parental controls: Debbie bought her son a Kindle Fire when he was 7, before an overseas flight. “It has some pretty amazing parental controls, as well as a curated FreeTime section with all kid-appropriate content and no Internet access,” she says. She can put separate time limits on gaming versus reading time (which she left, not surprisingly, unlimited).
- Manage accounts and passwords: A tech-savvy mom retooled her old iPad for her 3-year-old son. She stocked it with games she approved of and limits his use of it to car trips, after the appeal of books and stickers has been exhausted. As your child gets older, make sure you own the accounts and passwords, so you can control exactly what’s being downloaded.
- Set time limits: Some parents reserve the half-hour before dinner – when you’re trying to get a meal on the table – for screen time. Maybe daylight means outdoor play, but you watch a Friday-night movie. Or if your kids are rigidly scheduled on weekdays, you might allow some screen time on the weekend. Find something that feels fair and do-able, and stick to it.
- Write up a contract: Before giving your child her own smartphone or tablet, agree on the rules and even put them in writing (times, places, consequences for misuse or damage). If your child is old enough, both of you can sign it.
- Offer fun alternatives: If the kids are clamoring for more screen time, have fun activities on hand, so you’re less likely to cave.
- Talk to your child: Take note of what your kids are watching and playing, and ask questions about it. Have a family movie or game night and talk about what you saw together. When your children start getting interested in social media, start talking about responsible use of sharing sites and other Internet issues.
- Create clear consequences: Your kid defied a media-use rule? Be sure she knows, ahead of time, what the upshot of that is. Many parents take away devices as punishment. Maintain a screen-free zone, ideally bedrooms, so “time-outs” from screens can mean quiet time for reading, drawing, or playing.