Kids are spending more time with screen media—and at younger ages—than ever before. But there really is no magic number that's "just right." What's more important is the quality of kids' media, how it fits into your family's lifestyle and how you engage your kids with it.
The idea of screen time as a one-dimensional activity is changing—even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), whose screen-time rules had been strictly age-based, is recognizing that not all screen time is created equal. Computers, tablets and smartphones are multipurpose devices that can be used for lots of purposes. Designating their use simply as "screen time" can miss some important variations. The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens identifies four main categories of screen time:
- Passive consumption: watching TV, reading and listening to music
- Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the Internet
- Communication: video-chatting and using social media
- Content creation: using devices to make digital art or music
Clearly, there's a lot of difference among these activities. But as valuable as many of them can be, it's still important for kids' overall healthy development to balance their lives with enriching experiences found off screens. These tips can help:
- Pay attention to how your kids act during and after watching TV, playing video games or hanging out online. If they're using high-quality, age-appropriate media; their behavior is positive; and their screen-time activities are balanced with plenty of healthy screen-free ones, there's no need to worry.
- If you're concerned about heavy media use, consider creating a schedule that works for your family. This can include weekly screen-time limits, limits on the kinds of screens kids can use and guidelines on the types of activities they can do or programs they can watch. Make sure to get your kids' input so the plan teaches media literacy and self-regulation, and use this as an opportunity to discover what they like watching, introduce new shows and apps for them to try, or schedule a family movie night.
The AAP 's new guidelines, released in October 2016, allow for some screen time for children younger than 2 and emphasize parental involvement for all kids. In a nutshell:
- Avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting for children younger than 18 months.
- If you choose to introduce media to children 18-24 months, find high-quality programming and co-view and co-play.
- Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs for children age 2 to 5 years.
- Create a family media plan with consistent rules, and enforce them for older kids.
The reality is that most families will go through periods of heavy and light media use, but so long as there's a balance, kids should be just fine.