How to Find the Right Amount of Screen Time for Your Family

Everywhere you turn, there’s a screen, many directly in your child’s line of sight.  And everywhere you turn, there’s also a list of warnings about the dangers of screen time for kids. Physical inactivity. Obesity. Digital eyestrain. Disrupted sleep. Heightened stress hormones. Impaired social skills. Developmental delays. Brain damage. It’s a frightening prospect since a child is a child only once.  There’s no do-over with child development.

The potentially grave consequences have led both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization to publish guidelines on screen time limits, based on the age of the child.  The recommended limits, which include just 1 hour of high-quality screen time per day for children ages 2 to 5 years old, are far lower than most families’ actual usage.

On the flip side, dissenting opinions question the growing moral panic over screen time use and point out the benefits of screen-based technology.  What about face-time with far-away relatives? What about educational apps and programs? Is the real problem the quantity or the quality of kids’ screen use.

What’s a parent to do?

Here are three suggestions to find a realistic, reasonable solution for screen-time concerns:

First, read the actual policy statements from the AAP. There’s one for children ages 0 to 5 and one for children and adolescents ages 5 to 18. The full policy statements provide much more thoughtful discussions than simple hour-limits, with helpful considerations for concerned parents. They even provide guidance about specific brands of educational apps that may be beneficial.

Second, check out the AAP’s Family Media Plan, a nifty online tool to help you customize individual screen time limits for each child in your home.  The tool provides a 24-hour ruler that includes all the categories of time-use in a child’s day, such as sleep, school, homework, chores, and screen time.  It’s a great interactive visual to get a complete picture of the child’s day, which can help parents make better decisions about kids’ screen time and other activities.

Finally, look in the mirror and double-check the example you’re setting.  Parent media use is a strong predictor of child media habits.  Research also shows that parents’ use of both TV and mobile devices is associated with less parent-child interaction.  Decades of research confirm that those parent-child interactions are some of the very best supports for kids’ learning, communication and social-emotional development. Parents, never let screens get in way of the most effective parenting tool of all – YOU.

Dr. Pam Lano is a developmental psychologist who directs staff and family training at FamilyPath Autism Services. Pam’s two decades of experience working with families with autism has always emphasized educating and equipping parents so they can effectively support their children.  As a parent of a young adult on the autism spectrum, her parenting experiences always keep her humble and grounded in the reality that parenting is the toughest job you’ll ever love. For additional reading, see CNN’s recent article on the relationship between screen time and brain development.

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