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How much screen time is okay for kids?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says some screen time is okay for children as young as 18 months, but the organization recommends limiting kids to an hour or less a day of high-quality digital media – and urges parents to stay very much involved when their kids are using screens.
With so much digital media directed toward kids – from streaming videos to games and educational tools – parents rightly worry how much is too much. Experts also now emphasize that how kids use screens is just as important as how much they use them.
For years, the AAP strictly recommended no screen time before age 2, and less than two hours per day after that. But the group revised its guidelines in 2016 to help parents make more informed choices about how their family uses screens.
How much media do kids consume?
A lot. According to a recent our site survey, 4 out of 5 toddlers are watching movies, television shows, or online videos, and 85 percent of moms allow their preschooler to play with their phone. Half of kids get their own tablet by age 5. Plus, 1 out of 10 kids between ages 5 and 8 are allowed unlimited use of the Internet without parental monitoring.
Little to no screen time may sound like a great goal, 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 found your iPad and is now tapping and swiping like a pro. Or maybe the rules you carefully established with your first child got bent – or tossed entirely – by the time your second child came on the scene.
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, coauthor of Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens. Technology is moving fast, and with so many new products designed for and marketed to young kids, parents often end up feeling guilty or overwhelmed.
Does that describe you? Take a deep breath, and keep reading.
What counts as screen time?
Any time a child spends looking at an electronic screen is considered screen time. This includes watching videos and television shows, playing video games, and using a computer, phone, or tablet.
And it adds up fast: You might not think twice about letting your child fiddle with your phone or look at a book on your tablet, and it's tempting to share silly YouTube videos or cute photos on Instagram. But then in school or on playdates, your kids may be using devices or playing games they don't have access to at home.
There is one exception: If your family regularly uses video chat to stay in touch with faraway relatives, you don't need to count brief chats as screen time. Engaging in conversations with caring adults, even over a screen, lets young children practice social skills.
Why is too much screen time a problem?
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 to keep in mind.
- Social, emotional, and behavioral development: Parents' biggest worry is how screen time might hurt development, and there is good reason to be concerned. High media use has been associated with shorter attention spans, hyperactivity, ADHD, and aggressive behavior. One recent study of preteens found that spending just five days away from phones, tablets, and computers greatly improved their ability to read emotional cues.
In a study of 2,700 toddlers and preschoolers, kids who spent two or more hours in front of screens each day were found to have more behavior problems and poor social skills. Researchers also have found that kids who start watching TV as toddlers and young preschoolers may have a tougher time managing their emotions and comforting themselves when they're older.
Even having the TV on in the background has been shown to be so distracting that it interferes with interaction between parents and children – which is critical to supporting a child's social development.
- Weight issues: Being in front of a screen means your child isn't moving. Studies have confirmed that too much screen time contributes to childhood obesity and future weight gain, and reducing screen time helps reverse the trend. One recent study found that toddlers' body mass index increased with every hour of screen time per week.
- Sleep issues: The more time children spend watching screens – particularly in the evening – the less sleep they get. The AAP warns against keeping screens in kids' bedrooms, noting that even small screens like phones and tablets have been linked to poor sleep quality. The light emitted by screens may delay melatonin release and make it harder to fall asleep. Content matters, too: In one recent study, researchers found that preschoolers exposed to violent media had more nighttime sleep problems.
- Unhealthy habits: The habit of too much screen time can be hard to break. One study found that the more time 4-year-olds spent watching TV, the more difficulty they had taking breaks from screens when they were 6. As kids get older, many parents worry about dependent and addictive tendencies.
How can I figure out reasonable rules for my family?
The problem for many well-meaning parents is that rules 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:
- Content: What is my child watching or playing? Can she understand what she's doing or potentially learn from it?
- Context: What has my child's day been like so far? Have we talked and interacted a lot, or has she been plugged in for hours?
- Child: How does your child respond to screen media? When screen time is over, is she bursting with new ideas and questions she wants to explore? Or does she become irritable, anxious, or withdrawn? Why is your child drawn to particular media, and what is she getting out of it?
"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.
To identify your priorities and develop strategies that might work for your family, try using the AAP's online tool for coming up with a family media plan. You can personalize it according to your children's ages, your values, and your family's routines.
Be especially careful about using screens as a way to keep your kid busy during errands, or as a tool to calm your child or distract him when she's bored and restless. It's important for children to learn how to manage their emotions. Giving your child a screen as an easy escape robs her of opportunities to learn how to cope with and move past boredom or emotional discomfort.
Are there any benefits from "educational" apps, games, or shows?
Yes – high-quality media can help children develop important skills, and there are some great games and apps on the market that support 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.
The tricky part, however, is sorting the good stuff from the bad.
Although lots of TV shows, games, and apps claim to be educational, the term isn't very helpful. As of early 2017, Apple had a whopping 80,000 apps in its "educational" app category, and nearly three-fourths of the top sellers targeted preschoolers.
Yet apps don't need to meet any standards to be marketed as educational, and most are made without following a curriculum or using input from experts in education or child development. You can try to assess what's appropriate for your child's age and stage, but it's hard to judge what might contribute to real learning.
How do I tell the difference between good and bad educational media?
- Preview before playing or watching. Preview videos and apps before introducing them to your child, and choose ones that encourage your child to actively participate. Look for interactive elements that support learning and strategic thinking. Watch and play side-by-side with your child to make the most of the experience.
- Reinforce in real time. To make the most of high-quality learning games, pay attention to what your child is doing, and reinforce the lessons when screen time is over. For example, if your child plays with an app that focuses on identifying patterns, encourage him to find patterns around your home, or create a simple pattern with blocks or other toys. If he watches a video teaching letter recognition, help him recognize letters in books and on signs.
- Look for well-crafted stories and games. Avoid apps that require your child to mindlessly swipe the screen or feature distracting graphics. Pay particular attention to "hot spots," which are random opportunities to click on things that aren't related to the story or game. (Free games and apps raise a red flag because your child may end up with annoying and sometimes inappropriate banner ads.)
- Check reviews. Common Sense Media evaluates games and apps for age-appropriateness and educational value, and you can check out our tips for choosing computer games as well as the best TV shows for children and most engaging apps.
Are e-books just as good as print books?
Even if you're only using devices for reading, your child may be missing out. Researchers have found that interactive storybooks can be distracting for both parents and children, making reading together a less enjoyable and enriching experience. Children and parents ask fewer questions, and kids have trouble following along when reading an e-book together.
Your child will 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?") Digital books often involve lots of fun buttons, lights, and noises, and it's easy to get distracted by the device rather than focusing on the story.
The lesson here is there's nothing wrong with the occasional e-book, but keep reading traditional books to your child. And when you do turn to tablets or apps, try to treat the stories the same way you would a story in a regular book: Ask questions, make observations, and get your child involved.
When are kids getting their own phones and tablets?
A our site survey found that phones and tablets are commonplace among the little-kid set: About 85 percent of parents allow their children ages 2 to 8 to use their phones, 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 phone, and others aren't really concerned if Grandma wants to give everyone a tablet for Christmas. No matter what approach you take, be aware of what your child is up to, and find ways to moderate how and when devices are used.
Even if you load your child's tablet with what you believe are age-appropriate 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.
How can I support my child's interest in technology and coding?
Of course, we want our children to become tech-literate as they grow up. We also want to nurture and encourage kids who might grow up to be the next great tech innovator. But it's not just a matter of exposing kids to technology, notes Guernsey, it's about teaching them to think critically about it.
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 reinforce the concept of technology as a tool and set a thoughtful example. "Take the time to explain what you're doing around tech yourself," Guernsey says.
If you're looking up a map and directions for a family outing, show your child what that looks like and how cool it is. Explain the difference between technologies that help you do your job or manage your life (such as paying bills online or using videoconferencing for work), and those that are merely fun.
Ask your child's school how they're introducing kids to technology. If your kid shows interest in where technology comes from, tell her some people have the awesome job of developing new programs and apps, which is something she can learn how to do too.
And if you think you may 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
- Hold off on giving tech devices to kids: Don't feel pressured to let your child use tech early. Your child won't fall behind his peers – kids figure out how to use phones and tablets very quickly. And there's no need to let him have his own device. You'll have an easier time controlling the use of an item that you hold the keys to, so to speak, rather than one your child "owns."
- Set clear limits: Be specific about when and where screens are allowed. Some parents reserve the 30 minutes before dinner – when you're trying to get a meal on the table – for screen time, or limit screen use to weekends. You can also set aside some screen-free zones, such as bedrooms and the table during meals. Find a system that feels fair and doable so everyone in the family can respect the rules.
- Talk to your child: Make screen time a shared activity as much as possible. Pay attention to what your child is watching and playing, and ask questions. Have a family movie or game night and talk about what you saw together. When your child starts getting interested in social media, talk about safety, privacy, and digital citizenship.
- Offer fun alternatives: If your child is clamoring for more screen time, have fun activities on hand so you're less likely to cave.
- 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. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or distractedly answering work emails while you wait in line or have a snack, engage your child: Play tic-tac-toe, try a round of "I Spy," or just talk.
- Set up parental controls: Many devices allow you to limit what, when, or how much they can be used. One mom was impressed with the options on the Kindle Fire she bought for her 7-year-old: "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 even put separate time limits on gaming versus reading time (which she left, not surprisingly, unlimited).
- Take charge of devices: A tech-savvy mom retooled her old tablet for her 3-year-old son by stocking it with games she approved, and she limits his use of it to car trips – and only 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 what's being downloaded.
- Make a family agreement: Talk about when and how each member of your family may use – or not use – screens, discuss digital safety and citizenship, and post your family's guidelines where everyone can see it. (For a personalized plan, try the AAP's free family media plan tool.) Before giving your child his own phone or tablet, agree on the rules, put them in writing, and have both of you sign the document. Include times, places, and consequences for misuse.
- Create clear consequences: Your child defied a rule on media use? Be sure he knows the consequences ahead of time. Many parents take away devices as punishment.
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