Doctors offer advice on limits for ‘screen time’

Many parents are familiar with “screen time” recommendations for children. For some time, pediatricians have advised that children under two years of age should avoid screen time and that parents set a limit of two hours a day for children over two.

We live in a world, however, where screens are ever-present. Screens are on our phones, throughout our homes, in schools, in our cars and on our wrists. According to a survey by Common Sense Media, more than one-third of infants in the U.S. have played with a mobile device. The Pew Research Center reports that nearly 75 percent of teens use smartphones.

Help your kids make good choices about their use of technology.

Parents might ask whether the screen time recommendations are still relevant.

Technology is evolving at a pace that is much faster than our ability to evaluate its impact on our lives and to quickly respond with new recommendations. Last year, however, the American Academy of Pediatrics took a step in that direction by hosting a conference on media use among children. The goal was to review the latest research and offer evidence-based practical advice to parents on how to guide their children’s relationship with media.

The take-away message from the conference is that parenting is the same as always. Parents should model responsible media use that includes appropriate etiquette and a balance between online and offline time. Parents can set limits in the virtual world just as they do in the real world. For example, make meal time media free. Limit devices and screens in the bedroom. Research shows that the light from devices in our bedrooms can interfere with sleep quality, which is critical to healthy development and school performance.

Experts offered three ways of thinking about technology to guide parents in determining when it’s OK for their kids to use media and when they should turn their devices off.

Education and Early Learning

When it comes to media use, age and content matter. For infants and young children, the early years are the foundational years of language and social development. We know that during early childhood, direct social and physical interaction with others is critical to healthy development. The latest research on early brain development tells us that children under 12 months of age learn best from real-world experience. For children between 1 and 2 years of age, they can learn from video experiences, but physical interaction is better.

So in a broad sense, the same rule applies. For children under 2, parents should talk, read, play and engage with their children as much as possible. That’s how kids learn best. If screens are a part of their lives at this age, interactions that involve language and are more life-like are preferable.

Health and Development

For children over the age of 2, media can be a beneficial learning tool, but there are still choices to be made. Some online activities and games can stimulate the imagination, teach problem-solving techniques and promote patience and perseverance just as much as offline activities can. Balance is the key. The time kids spend online is time that they aren’t getting the exercise they need for a healthy body. Help your kids make healthy media choices and then send them out to play in the physical world.

Societal Impact and Digital Citizenship

For teenagers, the digital world connects them to the broader community. It is a place where they can form social relationships, discover and express their identities and be introduced to civic engagement. It is simultaneously a place where they can be bullied, abused and deceived.

Teaching kids to navigate this world requires modeling a responsible relationship with our own devices, helping young people to differentiate between positive social interactions and abusive behaviors and acknowledging that privacy risks exist online. Encouraging teens to feel comfortable discussing their online activities with you or with another trusted adult, including a health care provider, can help them to avoid risky behaviors.

Help your kids make good choices about their use of technology by encouraging them to choose activities that are creative and community-building rather than isolating and by teaching and modeling balance. Those are good tips for us all.

Dr. Julie Cheek is a board-certified pediatrician with Unity Care NW, formerly Interfaith Community Health Center.