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Managing Your Child's Screen Time


Digital media and electronics have become an increasingly unavoidable part of our children’s lives. From videos for babies that promise to prepare young children for preschool to social media accounts that teens open in high school and keep for years, digital devices are now a part of every step in the childhood experience — including school. 

Recent studies show that children over the age of six spend an astounding 45 hours per week consuming digital media of some sort (such as playing video games, watching TV, or texting). And yet, most experts agree that limiting a child’s daily screen time is essential for good health and proper development.

But exactly how much screen time should a parent allow, and how should it be enforced? Read the following Guide to explore potential answers to these questions and create a strategy that works for your family.

Understand current guidelines for screen time.

In October 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a revised set of recommendations for parents regarding daily electronics use and screen time for children. Among these recommendations were the following guidelines: Children ages 18 months and younger:

  • Avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting.
Children 18 to 24 months:
  • Parents who want to introduce digital media should choose only high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.
Children 2 to 5 years:

  • Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs.
  • Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
Children ages 6 and older:

  • Make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

Many parents will notice that, unlike the AAP’s previous set of recommendations, the revised suggestions no longer offer a specific limit for kids over age six. Instead, the AAP urges parents to develop their own limits, as well as a media plan that works for the entire family. For some parents, it might be helpful to note that the previously recommended screen time limit for kids over six was two hours. Some pediatricians still use this number as a general reference point.

Define what “screen time” means to you.

It used to be that limiting screen time was as simple as turning off the television. But with electronic devices now deeply enmeshed in nearly every part of life – from schoolwork to communication to shopping – it isn’t always easy to know when and where to draw the line. Consider the following questions, all of which can be a common source of argument between parents and children:

  • Does online homework constitute screen time? Given that your child doesn’t choose it, s/he would likely say that does not, even if you do. What about games, apps, or videos with educational content?
  • What if your child is in front of a screen, but engaged in something interactive or creative, such as “film-making,” coding, or photography? Is that screen time? Or is it art?
  • If your teen is reading the news on a tablet, is that considered screen time? Or is it reading?
  • Is texting screen time? If so, how can one measure this if it takes place in short (but frequent) bursts throughout the day?
Unfortunately, these types of questions don’t have simple answers. It’s important, however, to think about them and determine what the concept of screen time is going to mean to you and your family. As you set household rules, decide whether or not screen time “allowances” will cover all forms of electronics, used for any reason at any time, or if you would prefer to have one allowance for educational and school-related activities and another, separate allowance that’s purely for entertainment. Either way is okay, as long as both you and your child understand what is expected.

Set clear rules and limits.

Once you’ve determined what qualifies as “screen time,” set clear household rules regarding the amount of time that is allowed. Then, stick to these rules! Be prepared – your child will probably try to rationalize his or her way out of these rules often. Be firm! You’ll also need to determine when and where screen time is acceptable as well as the types of content that will be allowed. While these rules will differ from household to household based on your family’s lifestyle and value system, below are a few commonly suggested guidelines that might help you get started. Common Screen Time Rules for Kids & Teens:

  • No electronics at mealtime or in the dining room
  • No screen time during the hour before bedtime (a screen-time curfew)
  • Store or charge phones, tablets, and other devices outside of the child’s room at night
  • No screen time in the car, except during long trips
  • Put devices away while there is a guest in your home (even an adult one) or if your child is a guest in someone else’s home.
  • Put electronics away in public places.
  • Put devices down when others are conversing with you; focus on the people you’re with!
Be sure to discuss the rules you set with your child so that s/he understands the purpose behind each one. You could explain, for example, that screen use right before bedtime can alter brain functioning and make it harder to sleep well. Kids are more likely to follow rules when they make sense. Then, help your child stick to the rules you set by using the Daily Screen Time & Activity Log. Need help determining appropriate screen time and technology rules for your children and family? Try using an automatic "tech contract" generator, like the one found at iRules!

Use parental controls.

For some families, managing screen time can feel like a full-time job. If you find that your child has a hard time sticking to household rules about electronics, consider using an app designed to help control kids’ activity on their mobile devices. These apps allow you to set time limits for your child’s device, enforce screen time curfews, and even “pause” your child’s device from your smart phone. Also, be sure to set the parent controls already available on your household devices to block or filter internet content.

Focus on adding “real life” experiences (instead of taking screens away).

Much of the worry experts have about screen time actually stems from the things kids might be missing in its wake – namely exercise, bonding, and socialization. One way to combat these concerns is to focus less on removing unwanted screen time, and focus more on adding “real life” experiences. To make sure your child is getting enough exercise, for example, consider the following suggestions:

  • Mandate that s/he play outside for at least one hour every day.
  • Sign him or her or up for a sports program or join a team.
  • Take your child for a walk after dinner each night.
  • Play soccer, Frisbee, or a game of catch in the backyard after school or work.
  • Do fun, physical activities with your child on weekends, such as hiking, biking, or tennis.
Similarly, if you’re worried that too much media consumption will cause your child to suffer socially, offset this by creating more opportunities to be social.

  • Ask a friend to come home with your child after school. Try rotating this arrangement with other parents.
  • Plan get-togethers with other children or families on weekends, and make these social occasions screen-free.
  • Enroll your child in extra-curricular activities where s/he can interact with peers.
  • Instead of turning on the TV after dinner, have a family game night once a week.
Incidentally, by adding these fun, constructive activities to your child's day, you’ll be able to reduce screen time naturally without it becoming something “forbidden.” You can help your child keep track of the positive activities in their lives by using the Daily Screen Time & Activity Log.

Model good behavior.

Children often learn more from what we do than what we say. These days, it’s incredibly easy for people of all ages to become “lost” in our devices. Whether you’re tempted to send a few quick emails from the park, scroll through your social media feed at breakfast, or send a quick text message at a red light, try to avoid falling into the electronics trap. Some of these choices are downright unsafe; others simply erode our relationships over time. Use these moments to engage with your family instead – your child will notice.

Consider limiting screen time to a common household area.

It’s much easier to monitor the amount of screen time your child has – as well as the types of content s/he is consuming – when s/he remains in your line of sight. Consider keeping laptops, TVs, personal computers, and mobile devices in common living areas and making your child’s bedroom an electronics-free zone. Since most kids typically want to have access to these devices, this move may have the added benefit of encouraging your child to spend more time with family members – rather than alone in his or her room.

Don’t overthink it.

Remember, screen-time guidelines are designed to help us facilitate a happy life for our children – not to make everyone in the family miserable. Don’t let a strict adherence to any set rules create undue stress on your household or in your relationships with each other. In other words, if your child played a video game for an hour after school, then did some math problems online, but you were really looking forward to family movie night, go ahead and watch the movie. What happens on any individual day isn’t nearly important as having balance over the long haul.

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