How much screen time is healthy?
People often ask me how much screen time is healthy, particularly for their kids.
It's a hard question to answer because every family is different. Overall, I subscribe to philosopher Albert Borgmann's advice to "create the positive conditions where other engagements [away from the screen] can thrive and flourish."
This means I encourage a positive approach, championing families to focus their time and energy on the activities that bring them joy.
I often share the story of my friends, the Harders, in Ottawa, Ontario. The Harders have a family tradition of skating on the Rideau Canal on the weekends and going out for a Beaver Tail and hot chocolate afterwards. Not once do their three kids ask for iPads or Netflix while they're flying down the ice. They're happy, engaged, connected -- to their bodies, nature and each other.
The truth is: parenting away from the screen is more work. I know this intimately, as a mother of three young children.
It's unquestionably easier for me to park our children, ages 2, 4, and 6, in front of the TV while making dinner, than having them set the table, read books, or prep veggies. In front of the screen they are immobilized, otherwise I am running interference.
Depending on the night, you might find my kids cutting carrots with a table knife or watching Masha and Bear. That's the way it goes. What I think is key here is awareness.
I need to ask myself:
How do my kids act after an hour in front of the screen?
Could I engage them in what I am doing in a way that helps (me get things done / give them an opportunity to learn / provide an opportunity for connection)?
Do I need a 30 minute mental health break?
The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) is working hard to create family technology guidelines that are balanced, doable and data-driven, bearing in mind how pervasive screens are in our culture.
The AAP recently released an article outlining where the recommendations are headed, making this the first update since the guidelines were created in 1999. It's due time: technology-speaking, we are living in a different world.
In the the AAP News article “Beyond ‘Turn It Off’: How to Advise Families on Media Use" they write:
“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.”
The AAP's new guidelines are expected to be released in October 2016. In a recent NPR interview, David Hill, MD and chairman of the AAP Council on Communications and Media, offered some insights what’s behind the AAP’s thinking.
“The question before us is whether electronic media use in children is more akin to diet or to tobacco use. With diet, harm reduction measures seem to be turning the tide of the obesity epidemic. With tobacco, on the other hand, there really is no safe level of exposure at any age. My personal opinion is that the diet analogy will end up being more apt."
“While we acknowledged that mobile and interactive screens have become ubiquitous in children's lives, we did not advocate for their wholesale adoption,” expands Dr. Hill. “I suspect that when they do come out, the statements will be highly conservative, reinforcing much of what we have said in the past about the known effects of electronic media use on child health and development.”
Elements of the Coming AAP Technology Guidelines
Following their May 2015 conference, AAP News published some key principles that can be expected to reflect in the forthcoming guidelines:
- Parenting Has Not Changed. The same parenting rules apply to your children’s real and virtual environments. Play with them. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Teach kindness. Be involved. Know their friends and where they are going with them.
- Role Modelling is Critical. Limit your own media use, and model online etiquette. Attentive parenting requires face time away from screens.
- We Learn from Each Other. Neuroscience research shows that very young children learn best via two-way communication. “Talk time” between caregiver and child remains critical for language development. Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers. The more media engender live interactions, the more educational value they may hold (e.g., a toddler chatting by video with a parent who is traveling). Optimal educational media opportunities begin after age 2, when media may play a role in bridging the learning achievement gap.
- Content Matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer.
- Curation Helps. More than 80,000 apps are labeled as educational, but little research validates their quality. An interactive product requires more than “pushing and swiping” to teach.
- Co-engagement Counts. Family participation with media facilitates social interactions and learning. Play a video game with your kids. Your perspective influences how your children understand their media experience. For infants and toddlers, co-viewing is essential.
- Playtime is Important. Unstructured playtime stimulates creativity. Prioritize daily unplugged playtime, especially for the very young.
- Set Limits. Tech use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Does your child’s technology use help or hinder participation in other activities?
- Create Tech-Free Zones. Preserve family mealtime. Recharge devices overnight outside your child’s bedroom. These actions encourage family time, healthier eating habits and healthier sleep.
- Kids Will Be Kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. These can be teachable moments if handled with empathy. Certain aberrations, however, such as sexting or posting self-harm images, signal a need to assess youths for other risk-taking behaviors.
All over the world, our energies, creativity, and time—perhaps the best of us—are being spent committed to screens. As parents, it's up to us to show our children there is life away from the screen. The stillness of the woods. The ridiculous fun of board games. The pleasure of kicking the soccer ball around at the local park. The connectedness of reading Harry Potter, together.
Parents are partners. We model for our kids how to use the Web responsibly, creatively and empathetically.
Let's teach them to value people over gadgets, engage fully in the real world and, ultimately, live well.
It's worth it.