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Children, Screens, and Why It's Time to Take Back Childhood

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"Our children deserve the freedom to unleash their imagination and experience wonder in the world so that they can discover themselves, their passions, and their purpose."

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released their much-anticipated new guidelines parents on children's media use. While I am thrilled the organization has created stronger guardrails and suggestions to help parents navigate this challenging terrain, this is only the beginning. For parents to truly embrace constraints on technology usage, they need to clearly understand both the benefits of doing so and be armed with the tools necessary to make what will be, for many, an incredibly significant change in their families' lives.

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To recap, the AAP now recommends no screen time for children 18 months and under (except for video-chatting). Children ages 18 to 24 months may be introduced to high-quality digital programming in a co-viewing setting. Kids ages 2 to 5 should be limited to one hour of media a day, also ideally alongside a parent. Children 6 and up should be given "consistent limits" on time spent on media and the types of media consumed, but no time limit is specified for this age group.

I'm encouraged the AAP has recommended that "parents prioritize creative, unplugged playtime for infants and toddlers." This is the key to self-discovery and something I've been passionate about my entire life, but I wish the AAP had gone further to emphasize this same prioritization for others as well. School-aged children, teens, and even adults also benefit from the kind of creative, unplugged play where one's mind can wander and explore in order to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.

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Today, many of our kids are overscheduled and are therefore using their imaginations less than ever. It's a crisis in the making. Our children deserve the freedom to unleash their imagination and experience wonder in the world so that they can discover themselves, their passions, and their purpose. It's why we at Melissa & Doug have started a movement to Take Back Childhood.

We want to spread the word and empower parents with tools to incorporate free time into their kids' busy lives. Because by giving children a true childhood, we give them a path to realizing their full potential!

I wish that the AAP established what exactly "consistent limits" on media usage mean for children 6 and up. Perhaps there needs to be more research on the effects of screen time on this age group. It would be so helpful for parents to have clear usage guidelines for all ages so we can have a benchmark to work toward.

Furthermore, I believe too much screen time is just one of the problems facing our children today. There was a time not so long ago when childhood offered the space and freedom for children to develop curiosity as they explored their world. To take risks. To test limits. To be creative. To be bold. To be bored. To just . . . be children.

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To help make the case for the benefits of a childhood where free time for exploration is prioritized, it's clear there's a need for more research on how children are spending (and should be spending) their time outside of school and away from screens.

The AAP notes: "Problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration, and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning." I'd personally love to see more research from the AAP on the effects of adult-led activities (sports, classes, lessons) versus child-led activities. Is it more or less beneficial to a child's development to spend 4 to 6 p.m. in a structured, adult-led enrichment activity or in a lightly supervised unstructured child-led activity?

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As with most things, the answer is likely one of balance and moderation, but I dream of a day when society more fully embraces the benefits of unstructured time for kids. From what I have observed or heard, too many parents today feel they are letting down their children when they aren't scheduled in adult-directed skill-building activities each day. Yet the outcome is that our children now lack the space and freedom to explore their world and discover what is most meaningful to them.

I can't emphasize enough how crucial it is for all of us to take action on this issue. Our children need us to protect childhood, promote it, be a part of it. Please join us as we work to create a bright future for our kids.

Together, we can . . . Take Back Childhood!

Melissa Bernstein is a co-founder of Melissa & Doug and is leading a movement to Take Back Childhood. This article is part of a series from Melissa where she shares her thoughts and tips on nurturing the magic and wonder of childhood.