Screen Time Guidelines for Families

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By Christine Rushford, MS LMHC, Coastal Counseling

Screen Time

There is no way around it—screens are here to stay. Many parents wonder, “Should my toddler have a tablet?” Or lately, “Is my teenager addicted to video games?” There are more and more studies coming out to aid parents to determine what is age appropriate for children regarding media use.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is recommended that screen media be avoided for babies under 18 months old. At this age, a baby learns everything through communicating and interacting with those around him. If the baby is watching TV or is on a smartphone, the complex communication where the child learns and develops, comes to a halt. Furthermore, a baby under 18 months has no ability to transfer what he is seeing on the screen to his world around him. Although he may follow the bright colors, it is merely a distraction.

Ages two to five years old can benefit from TV shows, but the quality of the programming is imperative. Educational/interactive shows such as Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer have some educational benefits. It is recommended that parents watch shows with their children to maximize the learning potential of these programs, and limit it to one hour per day. Excessive amounts of screen time have been linked to speech delays, poorer performance on developmental screenings, inability to pay attention and a lack of social skills.

For ages six through adult, it is highly recommended to develop an individual media plan for each member of the family. Each family has its own unique set of values and morals and, therefore, the screen time needs will also be unique. As always, the caregivers of the family should come together and agree on all screen time policies. Children will follow their parents’ lead, so it’s important to model healthy screen time limits.

Many parents say their children appear “addicted” to their phones and video games. In 2018 the World Health Organization (WHO) included “Gaming Disorder” to its 11th revision of the International Classification of Disease (ICD-11). When parents express concern over their children’s habits, they have reason. Children, including teenagers, lack the self-control to limit their own screen time, so it is up to parents to set and model the family guidelines. If left to their own devices (pun intended), many children will lose valuable hours of sleep, lose face-to-face interactions with family and peers and even lose physical movement to screen time. If gaming begins to take precedence over all other activities in a child’s life or if there’s impairment in the areas of social, educational and/or occupational functioning, a child might be diagnosed with a gaming disorder.

Some common tips that appear to limit the negative effects of screen time include following the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, having “screen-free” times throughout the day (dinner time, car rides, etc.), creating a “docking station” for all smart phones after a certain hour, limiting and monitoring social media use, putting computers and gaming systems in a family space in the home rather than children’s bedrooms, and routinely discussing online safety and responsibility with kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics also offers an online Family Media Plan Toolkit to assist parents in developing individual media plans at www.HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan. Keeping up with technology can be overwhelming for parents, but there are many resources to help navigate the technological world. Screen time can be enjoyable as a form of entertainment and a way to connect with others, but as with all things enjoyable, moderation is the key to success.