The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) released new guidelines today for digital media use and screen time for kids aged five to 19. Today’s guidelines follow recommendations set out in 2017 that focused on kids aged zero to five. But while those guidelines targeted screen time limits for kids in that age group (no screens at all for infants and toddlers under two, and less than an hour a day for kids two to five), the guidelines for kids and teens focus more on how and when screens are used rather than how long. “We really wanted to highlight that content, context and kids’ individual traits are as important as specific screen time limits,” says Michelle Ponti, chair of the CPS Digital Health Task Force and lead author on the statement.
In its research, the task force found that three-quarters of Canadian parents are concerned about their kids’ media use. With 36 percent of 10- to 13-year-olds spending three hours or more a day on digital devices unrelated to schoolwork and 20 percent of high schoolers logging more than five hours a day on social media alone, the concern is real. But with school-age children increasingly required to use digital media at home and school and tweens and teens forging meaningful connections via social media, the solution isn’t clear-cut. “There are going to be different impacts [of] based on age and developmental stage between a six-year-old and a 16-year-old,” says Ponti. “We’re hoping we can help parents prioritize those things in a child’s or teen’s life that actually promote good health.” That’s why the report emphasizes participating in outdoor play, getting enough sleep and engaging in at least one hour of vigorous activity each day, as well as ensuring that your kid has outside interests and engages in face-to-face socializing. “If you add up all those priorities first, that really doesn’t leave much room for recreational screen use at night,” she says.
Sounds simple, right? Ponti acknowledges that keeping on top of your kids’ screen use can be tough, whether it’s your Fortnite-obsessed eight-year-old who promises to empty his lunchbox “when I die” or your multitasking tween doing homework in her bedroom while on Snapchat. The trick, says Ponti, is to start having conversations about the benefits and risks of screen use with your kids while they’re still young. “We’re hoping to guide families to develop these healthy habits earlier for school-age kids so that they become more of a way of life by adolescence,” she says.
The CPS has divided its recommendations into the four essential Ms:
Manage screen use by creating a family media plan, which encourages families to think about how and when they want to use media so that they can do so consciously and with purpose. A good family media plan should include individualized time and content limits.
The guidelines also recommend having kids do their homework in a common area to avoid multitasking, being present whenever possible when screens are used, and watching shows and video games together with your kids and initiating conversations about the content.
Ponti also recommends learning how to use parental controls and settings on your kids’ devices and acquiring their passwords and login information for devices and social media to ensure their safety. “It’s OK to obtain your kids’ passwords and follow their activity online,” she says. “Ideally, it’s done in the context of an ongoing discussion about online safety and privacy, along with what’s acceptable and what’s not.” Ponti uses the analogy of learning how to drive. “We expect them to attend driver’s ed and follow graduated licensing,” she says. “We don’t simply hand over a set of car keys and say ‘Go for it,’ and we shouldn’t simply hand them a phone and say ‘Have fun.’”
Make screen use meaningful by moving the focus off the amount of time your kid spends staring at their device and onto a balanced overall daily routine. “Determining when and how they’re going to use their screens will have more of an impact than just saying ‘OK, you can be on for two hours,’” says Ponti. It also includes ensuring that kids get appropriate amounts of face-to-face contact, sleep and physical activity and helping them choose screen activities that are educational and active rather than passive and unsocial. The statement also recommends helping kids choose appropriate content for their age and teaching them how to recognize problematic content.
Model healthy screen use by encouraging parents to review their own media habits. “We really need to evaluate ourselves and ask ‘What does my screen time look like?’” says Ponti. She cites the epidemic of texting while walking and driving as signs that most of us are just as addicted to screens as our kids. The CPS also warns against wearing headphones while walking, jogging and biking. The task force recommends designating “screen-free” times, especially for meals and socializing, and advises the whole family to avoid screens for at least one hour before bedtime and refrain from bringing devices into the bedroom.
Monitor for signs of problematic screen use at any age, especially oppositional behavior in response to screen limits or complaints about being bored or unhappy when screens are taken away. “We’re not saying to run to your doctor if your kid says they’re bored,” says Ponti. “But if they can’t seem to cope without access to technology or their negative emotions are so severe that they’re interfering with daily routines, that’s a big red flag and something to watch for.”
Ponti emphasizes that, like it or not, screens are going to be part of your kid’s life—and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But parents need to play an active role in how their kids engage with screens. “It’s not the screens themselves that are inherently harmful,” says Ponti. “It’s how we use them. As long as they are not taking over our lives and complementing our lives, that’s OK. That’s what we’re trying to focus on.”
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