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Screen Time and Kids: Pediatricians Work on a New Prescription

Research shows that the very young learn best via real life, back-and-forth "talk time." Passive viewing doesn't cut it. Additionally, unstructured offline play stimulates creativity and co-viewing media with children is critical.
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Last May I attended the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Growing Up Digital: Media Research Symposium for media researchers, educators, pediatricians, social science and neuroscience experts, and others. The purpose of this gathering was to grapple with matter of "screen time" and kids in order to help the AAP refresh their recommendations to parents.

In a world where teens and their screens are increasingly inseparable (Pew Research Center reports 24% of 13- to 17- year olds admit to checking their phones "almost constantly") and younger children are exposed to screens almost immediately upon exiting the womb, beleaguered parents look to the AAP for guidance. The organization's long-standing recommendation has been that kids' entertainment screen time be limited "to less than one or two hours per day," and for kids under 2, none at all. I often refer to this data when talking to parents, and it's typically greeted by the open-mouthed gaze of astonishment from parents who wonder how to turn back "screen time" to such prehistoric levels.

This is the conundrum the AAP found itself in, trying to reconcile research with reality. As the organization states in a press release,

In a world where "screen time" is becoming simply "time," our policies must evolve or become obsolete. The public needs to know that the Academy's advice is science-driven, not based merely on the precautionary principle.

So what does the science say? Well, for our youngest children the data is clear. Research shows that the very young learn best via real life, back-and-forth "talk time." Passive viewing doesn't cut it. Additionally, unstructured offline play stimulates creativity and co-viewing media with children is critical. As children get older, the AAP recommends that parents set limits and they say it is okay for teens to be online because "[o]nline relationships are integral to adolescent development."

But, most importantly, parents need to take a deep breath. According to the AAP, "parenting has not changed" and the same parenting rules our parents used with us are still relevant today, only they need to extend to online environments too. That means, parents have to get involved (online), they need to familiarize themselves with the apps that have funny names (i.e., Snapchat), maybe even learn some texting lingo (lol), and model good citizenship online and off. This requires putting down our own phones now and then in order to engage in a good old-fashioned offline chat.

In short, while it seems like technology has changed everything, in fact much remains the same. Parenting is a 24/7 job and no one said it would be easy.

Here, excerpted in full, is the AAP's Children and Media: Tips for Parents:

  • Treat media as you would any other environment in your child's life. The same parenting guidelines apply in both real and virtual environments. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Know your children's friends, both online and off. Know what platforms, software, and apps your children are using, where they are going on the web, and what they are doing online.
  • Set limits and encourage playtime. Tech use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Unstructured and offline play stimulates creativity. Make unplugged playtime a daily priority, especially for very young children. And--don't forget to join your children in unplugged play whenever you're able.
  • Families who play together, learn together. Family participation is also great for media activities--it encourages social interactions, bonding, and learning. Play a video game with your kids. It's a good way to demonstrate good sportsmanship and gaming etiquette. And, you can introduce and share your own life experiences and perspectives--and guidance--as you play the game.​
  • Be a good role model. Teach and model kindness and good manners online. And, because children are great mimics, limit your own media use. In fact, you'll be more available for and connected with your children if you're interacting, hugging and playing with them rather than simply staring at a screen.
  • Know the value of face-to-face communication. Very young children learn best through two-way communication. Engaging in back-and-forth "talk time" is critical for language development. Conversations can be face-to-face or, if necessary, by video chat, with a traveling parent or far-away grandparent. Research has shown that it's that "back-and-forth conversation" that improves language skills--much more so than "passive" listening or one-way interaction with a screen.
  • Create tech-free zones. Keep family mealtimes and other family and social gatherings tech-free. Recharge devices overnight--outside your child's bedroom to help children avoid the temptation to use them when they should be sleeping. These changes encourage more family time, healthier eating habits, and better sleep, all critical for children's wellness.
  • Don't use technology as an emotional pacifier. Media can be very effective in keeping kids calm and quiet, but it should not be the only way they learn to calm down. Children need to be taught how to identify and handle strong emotions, come up with activities to manage boredom, or calm down through breathing, talking about ways to solve the problem, and finding other strategies for channeling emotions.
  • Apps for kids - do your homework. More than 80,000 apps are labeled as educational, but little research has demonstrated their actual quality. Products pitched as "interactive" should require more than "pushing and swiping." Look to organizations like Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org) for reviews about age-appropriate apps, games and programs to guide you in making the best choices for your children.
  • It's OK for your teen to be online. Online relationships are part of typical adolescent development. Social media can support teens as they explore and discover more about themselves and their place in the grown-up world. Just be sure your teen is behaving appropriately in both the real and online worlds. Many teens need to be reminded that a platform's privacy settings do not make things actually "private" and that images, thoughts, and behaviors teens share online will instantly become a part of their digital footprint indefinitely. Keep lines of communication open and let them know you're there if they have questions or concerns.
  • Remember: Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. Try to handle errors with empathy and turn a mistake into a teachable moment. But some indiscretions, such as sexting, bullying, or posting self-harm images, may be a red flag that hints at trouble ahead. Parents should take a closer look at your child's behaviors and, if needed, enlist supportive professional help, including from your pediatrician.

A full proceedings report from the symposium is posted on the AAP website.