What You Need to Know About Screen Time for Kids

If there’s any one topic that gets a parenting debate going like no other, it’s screen time.

We are the first generation of parents who are dealing with an increasing influx of technology and screens – phones, tablets, television, gaming consoles, watches, and numerous screen-based toys that promise to turn our kids into geniuses. While, in many ways, technology makes our lives easier – hi, Alexa – there is also a feeling of unsettle amongst parents when it comes to technology and our little kids.

How bad is it? Should we slow down our kids’ introduction to screens or should we encourage it seeing as how relevant they are in schools nowadays? How much is too much? And most importantly, at least for me, how will we ever make dinner without it?

It seems as though everyone you talk to has a different opinion on screen time. Most parents make rules that work for their families – from “We don’t do ANY screen time,” to “Eh, we let them watch whenever they want.”

Of course, there is no right answer.

The truth is that screens are seemingly unavoidable in our daily lives and, as parents, we need to know how to manage the influx of technology that is coming our way. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revamped their screen time recommendations to better match the prevalence of technology in our lives nowadays.

The AAP recommends parents prioritize creative, unplugged playtime for infants and toddlers. “Some media can have educational value for children starting at around 18 months of age,” the guidelines suggest. “But it’s critically important that this be high-quality programming, such as the content offered by Sesame Workshop and PBS.” Parents of young children are also encouraged to watch media with their children to help children understand and connect to this media in developmentally appropriate ways.

For school-aged children and adolescents, the AAP recommends striving for balancing media use with other healthy behaviors. Children under 18-24 months are supposed to avoid digital media use with the exception of video chatting family and friends. Children ages 2-5 are supposed to keep high-quality screen time to under one hour. Screens are not recommended during mealtimes or one hour before bedtimes. Young children are not supposed to use screens solo.

While this sort of information is meant to be helpful, it often leaves parents more confused than before. And, if parents do succumb to screens in their daily lives, they are often laden with guilt. Am I ruining my child? Will watching silly YouTube videos harm them forever?

We needed more answers.

So, we spoke with  Dr. Jason Kahn, PhD, a dad, researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, and Co-founder & Chief Science Officer at Mightier. Mightier uses the power of bio-responsive games to help kids build and practice calming skills to meet real-world challenges.

We asked Dr. Kahn our lingering questions regarding screen time and our young children – read on to see what he had to say.

 

 

Why are interactive and life-learning screen opportunities much more valuable than passive screen time?

Interactive situations let a child solve problems that they might not normally confront in everyday life, Dr. Kahn tells us. “Interactive screen learning opportunities are a low stakes opportunity for kids to practice challenging situations in a safe place – where it’s OK to fail and try again,” he explains. Kids also get to practice challenging situations that have come up in real life. For example, practice deep breathing skills that they can hopefully recall next time they become frustrated on the playground.

 

What constitutes passive screen time? Does an “educational” show differ greatly from an interactive game in terms of benefits?

Passive screen time is anything that you just consume, not actually interact with, says Dr. Kahn. “Passive screen time isn’t good or bad,” he tells us, “it’s just that parents are always making either implicit or explicit decisions.”

Passive screen time can provide some educational content, be it social skills or nature facts. Be mindful that these lessons work best when they are reinforced through conversation with you or a peer so a child has a chance to reflect on what they heard, notes Dr. Kahn. Passive screen time can also help a child build “cultural currency,” which can help kids feel a sense of belonging with peers. For example, “If your child’s peer group is watching Voltron, and you’re OK with its themes, then being able to talk to peers is a value unto itself,” he explains.

Passive screen time also gives you a quiet moment to make dinner, and that’s OK, he confirms. Parents are best served by knowing that passive screen time is a choice and a perfectly valid one. By making choices explicit, it’s easier to balance that choice with other activities you value. At times, other choices are equally valid (homework, working together on cooking), he tells us.

“Remember that you’re in the best position to make the right decision for your family,” Dr. Kahn emphasizes. “Parents get flooded with input, but they know their kids best. I make decisions for my family with the following rubric: What else could we be doing right now? Am I comfortable with passive screen time taking its place? What do I want to get out of the screen time? How can I reinforce that goal beyond the screen? Specifically, are there follow-up conversations I can have that echo the value?”

Asking ourselves these questions gives us ownership over our parenting choices and relieves the guilt we often feel when making decisions.

 

What are appropriate limits for each age group for passive screen time?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines are a helpful starting place for parents to understand screen time guidelines, especially for passive screen time. They suggest less than one hour a day, especially for kids under six, and well-defined limits that don’t compete with other priorities (like sleep, physical activities, and academics) for older kids.

“I suggest setting two goals for passive screen time,” says Dr. Kahn, “First, try to watch with your child as much as possible and have conversations (it makes the consumption more active). Second, have a variety of experiences beyond the screen. It’s also OK for kids to be bored.”

According to the AAP, kids older than six should generally try to have less than two hours of screen time a day. But this is hard to measure as screens are all around us – they are even at the gas station.

Parents should go with their intuition of what feels right for their family.

 

 

What is considered truly educational screen time?

“If you want it to be truly educational, I’d focus on interactive screen time first,” says Dr. Kahn. “Specifically, look for programs that go beyond rote skills and reward creative ways of approaching problems.”

If you’re having a hard time discerning what’s educational, you can turn to community resources, such as Common Sense Media, which provides reviews for a wide variety of media. “And, you can always turn to parents in the community you trust,” adds Dr. Kahn.  “Just be prepared to be inundated with information, and remember, just because someone reached a different conclusion, there’s no reason to feel guilty about choices you’ve made for your family.”

Look for research from academic organizations to validate the screen time as being truly educational.

 

Is there a difference between watching something on TV and playing or watching something on a tablet or smartphone?

If anything, the TV allows more people to participate, noted Dr. Kahn. “In my house,” he says, “we prefer the TV since it implies a more social activity.”

 

Should parents be concerned with blue light in regards to their children and screen time?

Current evidence suggests that the screen should be off an hour before bedtime. “I do usually caution parents that this is an area where science is learning very quickly,” explains Dr. Kahn, “so recommendations may change quickly.”

“I personally like to keep screens out of the bedroom (but I don’t have a teen yet, so it’s easy for me to talk),” he says, “It minimizes distractions at bedtime and keeps the potential effects of blue light at bay.”

 

How long is too long when it comes to screen times and young kids?

This is where things get even more gray. “I’m not sure that this can be answered accurately right now, as there is no exact consensus among academics,” says Dr. Kahn. “Every kid is different, and we still don’t know how to approach the relative impacts of different kinds of screen time.”

“What is more clear is that we want kids to have a balance of things going on,” he explains. For example, the AAP recommends that kids get at least an hour of physical activity each day.

 

What subjects may be most conducive to screen learning, and what should parents look for in terms of apps and games?

Each app will differ greatly, it’s less about the subject and more about the method for learning.

“I like the Toca Boca apps, especially for very young children,” says Dr. Kahn. “They highlight ideas about cause and effect and exploration and allow for creative problem-solving rather than trying to steer kids to one correct answer.” Try playing with apps the same way you’d interact with a toy, he suggests.

“Our program, Mightier, is built to foster emotional regulation,” Dr. Kahn explains. “When we designed it, we often thought of a playground metaphor – we want kids to see themselves using emotional regulation in the same way they’d think about crossing the monkey bars. There are all sorts of right ways to do it and invite kids to bring their own creativity.”

Apps that offer that sort of creative problem-solving will add value and enrichment to your kids’ minds.

“On the other side,” Dr. Kahn offers, “many reading apps will often guide children to a single correct answer without inviting too much introspection. Everyone agrees literacy is important, but if there’s no real agency on the part of the child, then the interaction begins to feel more passive.”

 

Source: Shutterstock

 

How can families set a screen time plan?

“Parents should think about what they want to get out of screen time,” Dr. Kahn points out. “Is it learning? Family time together? Cultural capacity?”

Then, set really clear expectations, and make sure everyone buys in. And then, use them consistently.

 

Anything else parents should know regarding screen time?

Dr. Kahn offers these four additional tips:

  1. Take an active interest in the media your child consumes. Talk to them about it and why it is important to them.
  2. Co-consume media when possible.
  3. Have awareness of your own screen time habits. This isn’t an admonition to never have the phone out at home, but be transparent and verbal about what you’re doing and why you made that choice.
  4. Think about screen-free times. Dinner time is a common choice and usually a good one. But if a set of events conspire against a screen-free dinner, don’t feel guilty if you end up with a different choice.

 

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