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3 Common-Sense Ways To Manage Your Kids’ Screen Time


Many parents struggle with not only managing their own relationship with their phones, tablets, and other screens, but also that of their children. Since 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics has firmly supported limiting kids’ access to screens, but last week released new, slightly looser guidelines.

Previously, AAP recommended no screen use at all for children under two years of age. Now it supports an exception: children under 18 months can engage with others using FaceTime, Skype, and similar video-chatting apps.

In addition, AAP now allows for children from 18 to 24 months to use some educational apps with a parent or caregiver assisting them to interpret what they are seeing. The AAP continues to encourage caution in screen time for older children, recommending only educational content for preschoolers and consistent limits on media for older children.

It is encouraging the AAP is updating its recommendations based on a shifting media and technology landscape, but the continued alterations can frustrate parents just trying to do the best for their children.

Although its well-informed policy statements are extremely helpful to parental decision-making, it is by no means the one authoritative voice to rule them all. Policies are informed not only by medical knowledge but also by cultural norms and political realities, and those obviously bend over time. However, there is a consistency in AAP’s statement, backed by years of research, that parents can use as a general guide even as technology changes.

1. Choose Your Screen Time Wisely

The AAP had been criticized for not distinguishing between passive and interactive screen use. Their revised statement addresses some of those concerns, especially in the under-two set. Indeed, overall, the new guidelines reduce previous frustrations parents and researchers may have had with the AAP’s lack of nuance.

In the past, there had been a dearth of research regarding children and tablet/smartphone use. Dr. Dmitri Christakis, one of the authors of the current AAP guidelines and a pediatrician who directs the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, has begun a study conducting experiments with children from the ages of 18 months to 24 months that compares their experience with DVDs and educational iPad apps. In 2014, Christakis kicked off the current revisions by arguing in a JAMA Pediatrics editorial that interactive media for children under two years is acceptable for 30 to 60 minutes a day. Other research shows negative effects from screen use at all ages, but especially for babies and toddlers.

The AAP does caution that its relaxed rules (which are still stricter than the guidelines Christakis proposes) do not mean a screen time free-for-all for the toddler and preschool set. What of slightly older children? The AAP says a diet of up to one hour of educational screen time is fine for children ages two to five. However, Emily Oster (writing about earlier AAP guidelines in the 538 blog) questions, “If my 4-year-old is doing a workbook on the iPad, does that mean she learns less than if we used a physical workbook?” So far, the research often says yes.

As a parent, I run into the same issues. My children’s school is very low-tech on purpose, and I love the idyllic scenes of them learning with their hands: play dough, wooden puzzles, building things with sticks. But I draw the line at being horrified if they spend more than an hour at home doing jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, or reading books on their iPads.

It’s a different type of learning, sure. But I believe there are benefits to way the Montezuma puzzles or Monument Valley ask my children to use their brains. I agree that on most days, an hour of that is more than enough, but I also wouldn’t let that stop me from suggesting family movie night later the same day.

Aside from my contention that an electronic crossword is almost as good as the real thing, Dr. Ari Brown, chair of the AAP committee on media use, fears that parents will see an app labeled “educational” and automatically consider it vetted. “There’s a lot more to education than swiping and pointing, and that does not make an educational app,” she said to The New York Times in March. The AAP recommends also turning to groups such as Common Sense Media to help curate content.

Even TV isn’t always bad, as long as we pick the right programs and engage with younger children while watching. Research in the 1980s began the work of nullifying the “zombie effect” by focusing on how kids learn and how to help them retain what they see on the screen. Fewer screen cuts and linear stories assist in that endeavor—something “Sesame Street” tried to emulate. Then, in the 1990s, “Blue’s Clues” introduced “the pause“:

Steve asks a question and then pauses for about five seconds to let the viewer shout out an answer. Small children feel much more engaged and invested when they think they have a role to play, when they believe they are actually helping Steve and Blue piece together the clues. A longitudinal study of children older than 2 and a half showed that the ones who watched Blue’s Clues made measurably larger gains in flexible thinking and problem solving over two years of watching the show.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reiterates this in a well-researched 2012 policy statement jointly issued with the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College.

“Throughout the process of researching and writing this position statement,” they begin, “we have been guided by the legacy of Fred Rogers. By appropriately and intentionally using the technology of his day—broadcast television—to connect with each individual child and with parents and families, Fred Rogers demonstrated the positive potential of using technology and media in ways that are grounded in principles of child development.”

2. Engage With Your Children and Model Good Behavior

The AAP now says that children from 18 to 24 months can use media as long as a caregiver is interpreting and repeating educational contact. Ars Technica explains, “Basically, kids at this age have trouble translating content from a 2D screen to their 3D world. But, studies found that kids as young as 15 months can learn from media if a parent is there with them, translating and re-feeding them the lessons.”

One of my children seemed to defy those studies, learning all lower-case letters from the PBS show “SuperWhy!” at 18 months and beginning to write at two due to iPad apps, neither with any input from me. Some kids read and write as preschoolers, others in early elementary school. Neither group is “better,” and neither should be forced. The AAP stance is reasonable given the guidelines need to cover a large population of children, but as in all things, consider your individual child.

Even with my family’s relaxed screen time rules, there a few things we avoid allowing the children to do: no screens during mealtime, in the car, or waiting at restaurants and other public places. There have been exceptions, but that’s our general go-to. The benefit is my children learn patience without screens. At restaurants, they play “I Spy” or “What’s Missing?” (a game learned, incidentally, from Daniel Tiger and an episode in which he visits a restaurant).

However, one thing my husband and I are bad about is modeling that exact same behavior for our children. I’ve been known to scroll through Facebook at the table, or answer unimportant texts at stop lights.

Certainly, with great power comes great responsibility. The AAP says parents need to abide by family media-use rules in order to model healthy behavior, and recommends parents enforce tech-free zones for the whole family, such as mealtimes and bedtimes. Much of the concern over tablets and smartphone use is the sense that children will immerse themselves in something virtual without noticing the physical world around them.

This concept is advocated by Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect”: “Parents are pulling away from family life, lost in their own smartphones and screens, leaving many children feeling neglected and lonely. The ‘digitalized life,’ she argues, is taking its toll on us — altering the way children think and relate and pulling families apart.”

Others have noticed parents are using screens as calming devices, when human touch would be preferable. Pediatrician and AAP committee member Donald Shifrin, for example, will counsel parents who give children a smartphone after being vaccinated: “I think a hug would be terrific right now,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

3. Don’t Overthink It

I’m glad the AAP has relaxed its recommendations, but the very fact that it felt the need to emphasize that video-chatting is likely okay for very young children exemplifies the hysteria that surrounds screen time. Hanna Rosin, writing for The Atlantic in 2013, illustrates the tension between wanting our children to benefit from the digital age—they are, after all, “digital natives” —and wanting our children to explore and grow in the way most play-based education experts recommend, by real experiences in real places.

On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.

Norman Rockwell never painted Boy Swiping Finger on Screen, and our own vision of a perfect childhood has never adjusted to accommodate that now-common tableau. Add to that our modern fear that every parenting decision may have lasting consequences—that every minute of enrichment lost or mindless entertainment indulged will add up to some permanent handicap in the future—and you have deep guilt and confusion.

Many assume an hour of TV-watching or iPad playing is replacing an hour spent playing outside or bonding with a caregiver. However, I admit there are many times that TV has needed to be a babysitter for one or both of my children. When they were younger and I needed to shower, I turned on the TV so I could have those precious minutes without my children killing each other. When my daughter was only a year old, I often placed her in front of a television while trying to put my infant son down for a nap.

Brown doesn’t seem to judge. “No parent should feel guilty about their choices, we just want them to make educated and informed choices,” Brown said to CNN. “The casual interactions talking to their kids really make a difference in the word gap. And, so does doing any activity with their kids — on or off screen.”

As I write this, my children have the run of the house. They have just ended their school day, and I had offhandedly reminded them that they could watch TV or play on their iPads when they got home—a common practice after school, and one they don’t need permission for.

Despite each of their iPads sitting invitingly on the coffee table, instead a little bit of mischief ensued, outside time, and finally, creativity and literacy. They called me down from my research and writing to view their sidewalk chalk handiwork. Lucy drew a house, and James drew a rocket. Lucy wrote “Thes is me hos!” in her phonetic attempts at spelling. James wrote “rkt” for rocket. They both had dirt on their noses and hair. Goodness knows why.

About an hour later, they started fighting with each other, screaming for my intervention. “Do y’all want to watch TV?” I finally asked (or begged) in exasperation. No, was their answer. So on went the mischief, the fighting, and indeed, the learning.

To be sure, this is the work of childhood. This is what we parents want, not children resembling zombies in front of flickering screens. In our house, however, we have achieved this utopia by allowing technology, not shaming it. It is yet another entertaining toy, but one that to them is honestly less fun than slinging dirt at each other.

A version of this article was previously published on my personal blog in 2013 and had delved more into the research aspects of learning via screens. You can read more specifics about the relation of screen time to literacy here.