Today’s parents all know that enforcing screen time rules are a big part of raising children in the 21st century. But what’s new to all of these parents is balancing screen time recommendations from medical professionals with the boredom, broken routines, and need for virtual connection during COVID-19. So, what’s the deal with screen time limits for kids these days?
Jorge A. Diaz, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Baptist Behavioral Health and Wolfson Children’s Hospital. While more screen time than usual during the early stages of the quarantine was understandable, Dr. Diaz cited research that long-term exposure to too much technology can have consequences for children.
“In experimental psychological research, it has been reported that children under age 2 frequently exposed to television had an increased risk of delayed cognitive, language and motor development,” he said.
How much is too much?
For general recommendations on screen time usage by age, Dr. Diaz sticks to the guidelines published by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, updated in February 2020.
“Until 18 months of age, limit screen use to video chatting with an adult, like a family member who lives out of town. Between 18 and 24 months, screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver. For children ages 2 to 5, limit non-educational screen time to about one hour per weekday and three hours on the weekend days. For kids ages 6 and older, just try to encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens,” Dr. Diaz explained.
Even during a pandemic?
But during COVID, when some kids are already spending hours each day on computers for school, do these recommendations change?
“If your child is using the computer for a school assignment, that time should not be counted as the only screening time for the day,” Dr. Diaz said. “Allow extra screen time for pleasure.”
During COVID-19 safety precautions, like quarantining or avoiding travel, Dr. Diaz said it’s also a good idea to use video chatting as a socializing resource for kids. For younger ones, it’s actually pretty important (but be sure to keep nurturing real-life relationships). “Responsive interactions are key for toddlers’ development, and video chatting can be a source for this during the pandemic,” he said. “Always maintain supervision of your children when chatting. With older children, establishing clear boundaries about when kids are allowed to chat and who they’re allowed to interact with will go a long way towards creating a safer online environment. Remember that teenagers can be exposed to cyberbullying, sexting or posting self-harm images, and when this happens your child may benefit from professional help.”
Enforcing the rules
How can parents handle tantrums or attitudes over turning off the TV or telling their kiddo they’ve played enough video games today? Dr. Diaz said as long as your child’s screen time isn’t affecting their sleep, school performance or social interactions — which is a sign you may need to consult their physician — try to keep things in perspective.
“As parents, it’s important not to react disproportionately to the fact that technology is part of our modern world,” he said. “Take a deep breath, sit next to your child playing his video game or watching YouTube, and ask questions about their game or show to try to enter into their world. Mention to your child that it’s getting time to have their bath or it’s time to eat. This creates a smooth transition without abruptly cutting off their screen time activity and reduces the chance of tantrums.”
What to watch
If you’re wondering how you can help your child make the most of their screen time, choose games or shows that you’ve vetted to make sure they’re safe.
“Not all content is created equal,” said Dr. Diaz. “The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommends parents prescreen media or shows children are exposed and to co-view media with your children as often as you can. You want your children to avoid violent shows of any type, vulgar language, sex, racism, et cetera, as these can create desensitization toward violent content, and a decrease of empathy and prosocial behavior.”
Helping kids unplug
If you feel your child or teenager needs to spend less time online or in front of the TV, the key to success is doing the same thing yourself.
“The best strategies to reduce screen time in children also target adult screen use,” said Dr. Diaz. “Researchers have observed that adults spending less than two hours per day on leisure-related screen time were less likely to permit children more than two hours per day of screen time.”
So, instead of tuning in to another TV show as a family, use your evenings together to work on a puzzle, play a board game or get outside and exercise together.