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New standards help parents guide screen time in young children

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released new recommendations to help families maintain a healthy media diet. They’ve made these new recommendations mostly because the original set came out when the only predominant screen in the house was the TV screen. Now with so many mobile devices in existence and computers and streaming options, it was time to update the recommendations.

The previous recommendation was no screen time for children under the age of 2. Unfortunately, there were many families that were adhering to that recommendation so strictly that they were depriving their families of opportunities to communicate with family members via Skype and FaceTime, which is unfortunate. Any time we have a child interacting with an adult through that kind of digital media, that’s a very positive social encounter and it can provide a very stimulating and growth-inducing environment.

New guidelines: Children under 2

Giving a child less than 2 years of age a screen to play with that has poor quality materials and without adult supervision and participation is the least ideal situation. Giving a child a cell phone or tablet to help keep them occupied while they are in a stroller can be a counterproductive situation. It may temporarily calm the child, but they’re not learning emotional regulation, good social conduct or good communication skills. This can create behavior issues in the long run.

Ideally, if children ages 18 to 24 months are going to have any significant screen time exposure to an app, it should be a high quality one such as those created by Sesame Street. This app is age-appropriate, and it gives individualized responses to the child’s interaction with the app. Additionally, it’s important for the parent to participate in this screen time, reinforcing the activity with the child.  

The problem with many apps geared toward children is that they encourage rote memorization and there is no actual feedback given to the child and no non-verbal cues or changes in expression or tone in the app’s voice. When that happens, that child is not learning at the higher levels that are necessary to grow up and be a good communicator.

Real world experiences are still best for developing critical thinking, emotional regulation, creativity and persistence through challenges.

Children over 2

The AAP also recommends that for children ages 2 years and older, parents should place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health. Two hours of recreational screen is still the recommended daily limit.

Another clarification that was made was in regard to eBooks. If you’re using an electronic reader, try to avoid the kind with interactive enhancements, such as being able to push a button to make a character move. The research found that when those enhancements are included, a child’s mind can become too distracted for adequate comprehension and language processing. They tend to care more about the visual distraction so they aren’t learning how to become a better reader. Non-interactive pictures or images are not problematic and mimic a real book best.

The time recommendation of two hours of recreational screen time for children ages 2 years and older, specifically doesn’t include school work or FaceTime with friends and family. During recreational time though it’s always better if you can get your child to play outdoors or playing with three-dimensional toys. We know that children who engage in those activities the most are more successful at school, in social relationships, with spatial reasoning, and language comprehension skills.

Families should also designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.

It’s also important to have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

The main takeaway is that screen time should be an enhancement to learning and shouldn’t be used to entertain young children without adult supervision and interaction.

Lastly, if families are struggling with setting consistent, age-appropriate expectations around screen time they can use these resources to create an individualized plan for each child:

About Amy Seery MD