How much screen time is healthy?

People often ask me how much screen time is healthy.  That’s a hard one because each family is different and what I hope for is that parents can help kids find balance with all this screen time. Recently I ran into Dimitri Christakis, MD, who is in Screenagers and is very involved in helping to formulate the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) guidelines on screen time and kids, and he said the AAP are working hard to come up with something that is balanced, doable and data driven knowing how pervasive screens are in our culture.

Recently, the AAP released an article published in the AAP News with a preliminary outline of where the recommendations are headed.  This first update since the guidelines were created in 1999 is titled “Beyond ‘turn it off’: How to advise families on media use," and contains the following:

“In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete. The public needs to know that the Academy’s advice is science-driven, not based merely on the precautionary principle.”

The new guidelines are expected to be released in October 2016. In a recent NPR interview, David Hill, MD and chairman of the AAP Council on Communications and Media, offered some insights what’s behind the AAP’s thinking.

“The question before us is whether electronic media use in children is more akin to diet or to tobacco use,” explains Dr. Hill. “With diet, harm reduction measures seem to be turning the tide of the obesity epidemic. With tobacco, on the other hand, there really is no safe level of exposure at any age. My personal opinion is that the diet analogy will end up being more apt."
“While we acknowledged that mobile and interactive screens have become ubiquitous in children's lives, we did not advocate for their wholesale adoption,” expands Dr. Hill. “I suspect that when they do come out, the statements will be highly conservative, reinforcing much of what we have said in the past about the known effects of electronic media use on child health and development.”

Elements of the Coming Guidelines

In the meantime, here is a subset of the “messages” published in the October 2015 issue of AAP News from the AAP’s May 2015 conference:

  • Parenting has not changed. The same parenting rules apply to your children’s real and virtual environments. Play with them. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Teach kindness. Be involved. Know their friends and where they are going with them.
  • Role modeling is critical. Limit your own media use, and model online etiquette. Attentive parenting requires face time away from screens.
  • We learn from each other. Neuroscience research shows that very young children learn best via two-way communication. “Talk time” between caregiver and child remains critical for language development. Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers. The more media engender live interactions, the more educational value they may hold (e.g., a toddler chatting by video with a parent who is traveling). Optimal educational media opportunities begin after age 2, when media may play a role in bridging the learning achievement gap.
  • Content matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer.
  • Curation helps. More than 80,000 apps are labeled as educational, but little research validates their quality. An interactive product requires more than “pushing and swiping” to teach.
  • Co-engagement counts. Family participation with media facilitates social interactions and learning. Play a video game with your kids. Your perspective influences how your children understand their media experience. For infants and toddlers, co-viewing is essential.
  • Playtime is important. Unstructured playtime stimulates creativity. Prioritize daily unplugged playtime, especially for the very young.
  • Set limits. Tech use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Does your child’s technology use help or hinder participation in other activities?
  • Create tech-free zones. Preserve family mealtime. Recharge devices overnight outside your child’s bedroom. These actions encourage family time, healthier eating habits and healthier sleep.
  • Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. These can be teachable moments if handled with empathy. Certain aberrations, however, such as sexting or posting self-harm images, signal a need to assess youths for other risk-taking behaviors.