Managing Your Child’s Digital Media Use
| Posted On Feb 10, 2020 | By: Dr. Brittanny Boulanger
“Life was so simple when apples and blackberries were fruit, a tweet was the sound of nature, and facebooks were photo albums.” ~ Carl A. Henegan
For parents, nowhere is this truer than their family’s relationship with its “screens,” the myriad of devices in our lives that have the power to connect and entertain us but also to consume and distract us. The amount of time we as a society spend plugged in or glued to these devices is staggering, and for parents, the question I hear time and again is, “What can I do about my child’s use of them?” My reply often begins with a dose of reality: screens and digital media use are not going away. They are an integral part of work, school and home for most of us. They do have value, but it’s important to establish boundaries and limitations early on, and I find families struggle when they haven’t done that. So how much screen time is right for your children? And how can you develop some good screen habits in your household? Below are some guidelines and tips to get you started.
Screen Time Use by the Ages
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has created guidelines for digital media use, which I have summarized below by age. These guidelines were developed with the best evidence-based information we have to balance the benefits of digital media use (early learning, exposure to new ideas and knowledge, access to information, and opportunities for positive social contact and support) with the risks they can pose to the health and wellness of children, particularly: on sleep, attention, and learning; a higher incidence of obesity and depression; exposure to inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsafe content and contacts; and compromised privacy and confidentiality
- For children 0-2 years of age, the AAP recommends no screen time under the age of two. It’s feels funny bringing it up with infants, but because of the access to smartphones and other devices, I discuss it with my families. At this age, children are developing cognitive and language skills but also sensory-motor and social-emotional skills, and the TV or screen program is neither real nor interactive. The one interesting exception is video chatting, like Facetiming with grandparents, as the exchange is interactive and social, involves the parent, and is usually relatively brief so as to reduce confusion about what is and is not real.
- For children 2 to 5 years of age, the AAP recommends they should not have more than one hour of “sedentary screen time” each day. The AAP also suggests that any screen time be of high-quality programming, and parents or caregivers should watch with their children, as young children are still learning how to apply what they see on a two-dimensional screen to the world around them.
- At the age of 6 and older, managing screen time becomes more challenging, as the use of digital media can vary dramatically depending on its use in your child’s school or for other educational purposes, as well as for extracurricular activities (e.g., the budding blogger or filmmaker, computer-aided design programs, etc.). Here, the AAP suggests that families have to think about what’s appropriate for their family and set consistent limits on the overall time spent using digital media, as well as more specifically on the types of media being used. Further, parents need to monitor and make sure that use of screens is not interfering with adequate sleep or physical activity or negatively impacting emotional health.
Tips for Managing the Use of Screens
For our youngest children, managing screen time, quality as well as quantity, is a bit more straightforward as they usually do not have a device of their own. Consider these tips for your household:
- Limit use where you can and instead maximize active play and the social interaction and learning that comes from, for example, a parent talking to or engaging with a child, like doing a puzzle or reading a book.
- Choose high-quality programming like PBS, and watch it with your children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
- Make sure to set parental controls on TVs or tablets (and even on your personal smartphone!)
- Be extremely skeptical of “educational apps” and read reviews carefully. Most are not developed by educational experts and focus on rote academic skills only. Apps that seem to hold the most promise are those adapted from high-quality PBS programming or those, like “Bedtime Math,” that create a platform for joint parent-child participation and interaction (versus solo or isolated use by a child).
- Resist using screens as a behavioral tool. I think most of us at one point or another have distracted our child with a phone or a tablet when he or she is crying or unhappy in public. While it may be okay to do this occasionally, it shouldn’t be the only method used as children need to learn how to calm themselves.
Again, things get a little trickier as children get older and not only have access to the family TVs and gaming machines but to their own devices (smartphones, computers for school, tablets and e-readers, etc.). Some things you can consider:
- Do set firm time limits on recreational video games and TV watching, regardless of any “social” aspect. Fortnight is a classic example. Kids will say it’s a social outlet, but more times than not they are isolated, sitting in the basement doing it for hours and not interacting with family or doing other activities.
- Strongly consider when you give your child his or her own smartphone, and also what that phone can do. There may be very good reasons why your 4th or 5th grade child needs a phone – for example, communication with parents or a baby sitter for pick-up, etc. – but the earlier it’s introduced the harder it is to have boundaries around its use. Many families take the “Wait Until 8” pledge to wait to introduce smartphones until tweens are in eighth grade.
- When your child has his or her own smartphone, make a contract. Here is an example to get you thinking, although I might add rules around not sharing passwords with anyone outside the family, rules for friends’ usage of their phones when in your home, no joining social media sites without permission, no use of a smartphone in your child’s bedroom, and “putting the phone to bed” for family meals, homework and at least one hour before bedtime.
- You and your spouse or other adults in the household should model good digital media behavior. It’s hard to have a smartphone contract with your teen that says no phones at dinnertime only to have your spouse texting someone over the meal. Not all rules can or should apply equally, but the reason some of those rules apply – like reinforcing positive social interactions – need everyone’s attention.
About Dr. Brittanny Boulanger
Joined Harvard Vanguard:
Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA
Golisano Children's Hospital, Rochester, NY
Golisano Children's Hospital, Rochester, NY
Children's Hospital, Boston, MA; Winchester Hospital, Winchester, MA
Newborn medicine and adolescent medicine
Running, soccer, hiking, skiing, travel and spending time with her two young children.