When my five-year-old daughter, Violet, gets her screen time, she has a degree of control that I couldn’t even imagine when I was a kid. Back in the day, my brothers and I had to stay put in front of a hulking Sony Trinitron that rarely delivered shows we wanted to see. (“What?! The Edison Twins again?!”) Violet’s experience is nothing like that. Whether she wants a funny movie trailer on Dad’s iPhone in the bathroom, an episode of PAW Patrol on a tablet at the kitchen table or a game on her LeapPad on the sofa, she’s got a screen at the ready. Compared to my brothers and me, Violet is the master of all media. Or is she the one getting mastered?
That’s a question worth pondering now that the American Academy of Pediatrics have a new set of recommendations on screen use. (Released online today, they’re published in the November issue of Pediatrics.) As indicated by a preliminary report released last fall, the AAP have updated their policies to acknowledge just how digital our lives have become. After years encouraging parents to maintain strict limits about consumption, the AAP now concedes the difficulties families face being surrounded by all that tech.
I for one feel bewildered about where and how to draw a line as my daughter heads deeper down the digital rabbit hole. According to a 2015 study by Common Sense Media—an American organization that promotes healthy media habits for families—tweens now spend 4.5 hours daily staring at some kind of screen. For teens, it’s nearly seven, and that’s not including time using devices for or in school. That may seem outrageous until you consider how normal it is for us adults to work at monitors for eight hours and then bask in the leisure-time glow of flat-screen TVs, tablets, and the phones that rarely leave our hands.
That’s why the AAP is encouraging parents to consider the whole family’s media use rather than fret about limits for its younger members. The new recommendations acknowledge the massive shift in our relationship to tech since its last major policy statement in 2011. Back then, it recommended no screen exposure for kids two and under and only two hours per day for older kids. But those guidelines were drafted before the massive proliferation of tablets and apps for preschoolers and the continued rise of screen consumption for kids of every age. Even some of the AAP’s members questioned the wisdom of those guidelines: in an article for Pediatrics in 2013, Claire McCarthy wondered whether adhering to the party line on that two-hour limit qualified as “insane.” (The latest recommendations by the Canadian Pediatric Society also date back to 2011. Along with that same two-hour limit, it includes such shame-inducing nuggets as “avoid making television watching part of your regular daily routine.”)
When it comes to kids younger than 18 months, the AAP now suggests limiting use of screen media to video-chatting, which makes Facetime calls to grandparents a more guilt-free exercise. For kids up to 24 months, parents may introduce “high-quality programming” and kids aged two to five can get one hour of the same. As for what counts as high quality, the AAP recommends shows by the Sesame Workshop, one of the policy’s authors. Common Sense Media is another author and its website has plenty of strong suggestions. (I’m relieved to see that PAW Patrol gets a five-star rating for its “positive role models.”)
Whatever you watch, the AAP notes parental participation is key since kids need help understanding what they’re seeing and how to integrate that into their real-world experience. Of course, that runs counter to the typical way parents use TV or iPad time to buy time for cooking or other grown-up activities. That may be unavoidable on busy days but the AAP guidelines suggest that shouldn’t be the default use—when you need a diversionary toddler tactic, there’s always the pots and pans drawer I guess.
Instead of pushing strict limits for kids over five, the AAP recommends families devise consistent limits and develop other strategies to “make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity or other behaviors essential to health.” Its interactive online tool at healthychildren.org walks users through the creation of a personalized Family Media Plan. That starts with deciding which spaces to declare “Screen Free Zones” (i.e., the kitchen table, bedrooms) and when to shut it down.
Above all else, the AAP’s new policy emphasizes the importance of making screentime a team activity. The plan I devised offered useful tips like discouraging TV or devices at meal time since it’s associated with obesity and weight gain in children, and prioritizing co-viewing and co-playing since educational shows and games need parental participation to have the benefits they claim.
While some parents may see the AAP’s shift away from time limits as a capitulation to digital-era enslavement, I’m happy the recommendations compel us to think more carefully about media use. Maybe I’ll even stop feeling so guilty whenever we exceed that magic number on a sick day or a very lazy weekend. It’s more about making media a space that the family shares. If that’s a priority early on, you may find it easier to communicate if you ever have to face the more troubling aspects of today’s tech-saturated childhoods, like online bullying.
It’s also a timely reminder for parents to be aware what our kids are learning from our own behaviours. Since reading the report, I’ve been trying to stop checking my Politico app at every break in conversation. And now, sitting down to watch PAW Patrol with Violet means actually watching Chase and Ryder, not fixating on another screen under my control—hey, at least it’s not The Edison Twins.