A Gracefully Introduction to Screen-time and Children

By Caresse Giles

It’s an exciting time in my life. This summer I will become a mother, and as any expectant parent would understand, I am filled with feelings of joy, nervousness, anticipation, and hope - basically every feelings. Not surprisingly, one of my primary research topics in preparation for parenthood is how to gracefully integrate technology into my child’s life.

It’s become increasingly clear that too much screen-time can be a real problem for children and young adults. Research indicates that excessive screen-time has been associated with a host of issues including language delays, attention deficit issues, sleep problems, inability to self-sooth, and behavioral problems. That said, the research and recommendations can be confusing and even feel impossible to follow for parents living in this time where screens are literally everywhere.

The American Academy of Pediatrics updated its recommendations on children and screen-time in 2016 to recognize the pervasive role of media in children’s lives. These new guidelines, which were drafted before the rise of iPads and applications designed for children, were sorely needed as parents found the previous guidelines impossible to meet.

The recommendations include:

  • For children under the age of 18 months, avoid all screen-time other than video chatting with family and friends.  

  • For children 18 months to 24 months, limit screen-time to only high-quality content and co-watch to help aid in comprehension. Programming like Sesame Street and PBS are often cited as high-quality content likely due to the fact that programming is research-based and designed specifically with education in mind.

  • For children between the ages of 2 to 5 years of age, screen-time should be limited to 1-hour or less a day. As with the previous age segment, parents should co-watch with the child.

  • For children ages of 6 and older, the recommendations became more vague. Parents are told to place consistent restrictions on screen-time and ensure screen-time does not interfere with the child getting adequate sleep, physical activity, or other healthy activities like outdoor play and reading.

  • Finally, the organization recommends designating media-free times (like dinner) and having ongoing conversations about online citizenship, safety, and social behaviors online.

Easier said than done, right?

Developing healthy media consumption behaviors early can help mitigate future problems related to limitations. The child that never learned to use digital media to entertain their wandering mind will be a smaller challenge than the child that has already developed a preference for screen-time.

Allowing room for moments of boredom and unstructured playtime can help teach children how to self-soothe, think creatively, and problem solve. Filling those moments with screen-time can create a child who is reliant on a screen. This creates a cycle that is hard to break, as busy parents seek to carve out their own time for daily tasks and are forced to turn to handing over the iPad to their child.

Screen-time often replaces healthy activities like outdoor play, reading, unstructured/creative playtime, social activities, and quiet moments of reflection. These activities help children develop into healthy, active, happy, and successful adults.

If you have found this website, you are probably thinking about finding balance in your own digital behaviors. Setting a good example is critical. Plus, research shows that a parent’s screen-time can have negative impacts on their children’s behavior. So turn off those notifications and unplug at home if you want your children to follow-suit. Find tips on how to find balance and unplug here.

Instead of focusing your attention on setting rules and limitations on screen-time, focus your energy on encouraging and participating in alternative (and healthy) activities with your children from an early age. Center your efforts on meeting the Department of Health & Human Services’s guidelines for children to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day and between 9-11 hours of sleep. Focusing here makes screen-time limits more achievable than you first imagined.

There are so many resources for parents interested in learning more about limiting screen-time for their children. One to highlight is Screen Free Parenting which is “a counter-culture blog designed to support you wherever you are on the screen spectrum”. They are on a mission to deliver 1 million screen-free activities to their users and you can find some of those here.

Caresse Dufordscreentime