Where do screens fit into family time?
With the explosion of screens in the last decade has come concerns about whether we are spending too much time staring at them. The concerns are especially intense when it comes to children and teens. What is all that screen time doing to their minds and bodies?
Those are questions parents want answers to and experts are still trying to figure out. The sudden proliferation of smartphones and tablets hasn’t allowed time for research to provide definitive answers. According to a Common Sense Media survey, 41% of families had a mobile device in 2011; by 2017, 95% did. In 2011, less than 10% of families had a tablet; by 2017, nearly 80% did.
For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) based its advice about screen time on television. It has revised its recommendations to address the digital age but notes that “research in this area still remains limited.”
In 2016, it revised its recommendations to discourage any screen time for children under 2, one hour a day for children 3 to 5, and two hours of total “entertainment screen time” for older children. That “entertainment” description leaves room for doing school work on a screen.
The AAP’s recommendations aren’t based on the screens themselves or content but on concerns that time spent in front of them crowds out time with family, exercise and sleep. In addition, there is no evidence of benefits of screen time for toddlers. “Children under age 2 need hands-on exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers to develop their cognitive, language, motor and social-emotional skills,” the AAP says.
That advice comes with an exception for video chats with Grandma or other distant relatives, whose presence in a toddler’s life overrides concerns about screen time.
For today’s families, screens are a fact of life and they aren’t going away. In the absence of definitive research-based advice, achieving balance is key. Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, suggests parents use Michael Pollan’s advice about food (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) as a guideline: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.”
Education consultant and blogger Doug Green suggests screen time be considered in the context of the overall health of a family. “The best evidence we have currently suggests that if you are functioning well as a family otherwise, there is a huge amount of leeway in the screen radiation your kids can absorb and still do just fine,” he writes.
The food analogy is echoed by others. Writing in the New York Times, pediatrician and journalist Dr. Perri Klass explains that “several experts say we should teach kids to think of screens as something to handle in moderation, like food, rather than something without any healthy place in our lives…”
“Since most of us depend on technology to do our jobs and stay connected, we — and our children — need to find healthy ways to use it, sometimes quite intensely, without letting it take over,” Klass writes.
What’s the best path for families on screen time? A good place to start is for parents to look at their own screen habits and the example they’re setting. Heavy use of digital devices by parents reduces the amount of time for interaction with children, the AAP says. “Because parent media use is a strong predictor of child media habits, reducing parental media use and enhancing parent-child interactions may be an important area of behavior change.”
The AAP offers a template for families to create a media plan that determines screen-free zones and times, ensures children get enough sleep and exercise and establishes a parental role in media choices. The AAP also urges parents to “help your child select educational media that encourage creativity and co-view the content or co-play with your child.”
Common Sense Media advises parents to maintain a strong guiding hand in their children’s media lives. Help choose what they interact with, play alongside them and talk to them about their digital experiences.“There are tons of great TV, apps and other media for kids under the age of 8, so when they’re using media, try to steer them toward the good stuff,” the group advises. “And finally, though we’re only beginning to understand the impact of new technologies in family life, there’s plenty we know about how to support young kids’ healthy development. Talk with them, ask questions, give them lots of experiences in the real world. And have them tell you about what they’re watching and playing – it’s a great way to make media experiences more meaningful.”