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Child & Teen Health
New expert recommendations on children and media use
- By Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
Follow me on Twitter @drClaire
For years, the standard recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been that children shouldn’t have more than two hours a day of screen time. But with the explosion of the internet and social media, the increase in smartphones and tablets, and more education and homework happening online, the “two hour” rule has become increasingly difficult — and, ultimately, out of touch.
This month the AAP came out with a new set of recommendations. Understanding that there is no “one size fits all” approach to media, their approach was not to set rules, but to help parents and caregivers understand the effects of media and give them practical tools they can use.
The downsides to screen time
While there are many ways media can connect us and make life easier and more fun, there are downsides for our children. In their two policy statements, “Media and the Developing Mind” and “Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents,” the AAP outlines the important points we need to keep in mind:
- Media use is linked to obesity. Whether it’s those ads for unhealthy foods, ignoring the signs signaling you feel full when eating in front of media, or simply exercising less because you are caught up in media, the more kids sit in front of a screen, the more likely they are to be overweight.
- Media use interferes with sleep. The blue light emitted by screens wakes up the brain and makes it harder for us to fall asleep — and when screens and phones are in the bedroom, kids (especially teens) often use them instead of sleeping.
- Media use can interfere with development in young children. Children need the back-and-forth with caring adults to learn, and they need unstructured time to learn how to control their own behaviors, and to use their imagination. Plopping a kid in front of a screen can mess all that up.
- Media use gets in the way of interactions between people. Whether it’s between parents and kids, or between kids and their peers, it’s simply true that we interact less when there is a screen involved, and that’s bad for not just development but relationships.
- Screens displace other activities. It’s not just interactions, sleep, and exercise. It’s reading, drawing, building, being outside, and all the other things we might do.
- Media can influence behavior in ways that aren’t good for our kids. Kids are influenced by what they see, including violence, sex, or substance use. Seeing it on media can glamorize and normalize it, and make kids more likely to do it.
- Mixing homework and entertainment media is a bad idea. We only have so much attention; when it gets divided, it gets in the way of learning.
- Media, especially social media, gives bullies new tools to use. And these tools can spread messages quickly, broadly and anonymously, making them particularly dangerous.
This is why parents need to be really thoughtful about how their children and their family use media — and about the example they set themselves.
How to help your children consume media wisely
To help families, the AAP has two great tools. There is a Family Media Plan Wizard that takes you through everything you might want to think about and discuss as a family and create a printable document you can post in your home (and share with other caregivers) as well as a Media Time Calculator that lets parents map out their child’s day and be sure that media isn’t displacing any activities that are important for the child — and the family.
Here are some general recommendations from the AAP about media use and children:
- Children less than 18 months really shouldn’t use media, except for video-chatting.
- Children 18-24 months should only use media that is carefully chosen for their age group — and parents and caregivers should do it with them. Common Sense Media, PBS Kids, and Sesame Workshop have good resources to help families choose content for their children.
- Children 2-5 years should have an hour or less of screen time a day, and it should be content that is educational and promotes good social skills
- For all ages, screens should be off during meals and for an hour before bedtime (and devices should be charged outside of the bedroom at night).
- Playtime, family time, and homework time should be screen-free. If a device is needed for homework, it should be used only for homework until homework is done.
- Families should develop a family media plan that includes guidelines around safe use of devices (like never while driving or crossing streets) and being a responsible digital citizen.
- Families should be sure that all children get enough sleep, exercise, and screen-free downtime.
- Parents and caregivers should set a good example when it comes to media. Children always pay more attention to what we do than to what we say.
For more information and tips, visit the Media page of healthychildren.org, the AAP’s website for families and caregivers.
About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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