Thanks to a recent change in screen time guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), parents of toddlers no longer have to pretend that the “Big Bird” their child constantly chatters on about is actually an oversized ostrich he saw at the zoo. It’s now okay to admit it’s something he saw on TV.
The AAP lifted its recommended ban on screen time for children under 2, and instead issued a whole new set of guidelines for appropriate digital media viewing. The AAP acknowledges that – in this digitally-centric world – there are real-time benefits to watching educational programming and connecting online.
Still, you need to know how to use your devices so that they don’t become babysitters for your children, says Sara Lee, MD., a pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.
“Most of us use media every day,” she says. “It’s how we interact with the world and it’s how we learn new ideas. Children will need to know how to use these forms in healthy, effective ways. These (new) guidelines give parents a lot more guidance on how to use media with their kids at home.”
Some of AAP's recommendations include:
•Toddlers younger than 18 months should avoid all screen media – except for video-chatting with family members.
•Parents of children aged 18 to 24 months are encouraged to watch educational shows and apps with their kids, looking to them as learning tools – like books – instead of mindless entertainment.
•For young children between the ages of 2 and 5, screen time should be limited to one hour per day. Again, you should sit and interact with your child while she watches.
•Children 6 years and older should be monitored to make sure that screen time isn't interfering with their sleep or social and physical interactions.
•Parents should designate “screen-free” times and locations where everyone's media devices are off.
•Conversations about online citizenship and safety should be ongoing.
While the guidelines focus mainly on children’s screen time habits, Dr. Lee emphasizes that your actions and habits matter, too. After all, your kids are looking to you for example.
“I encourage parents to examine their own media use,” she says. “Are you following your own rules about screen-free meals or screen-free times? Screens in your bedroom at night may not be beneficial to you either.”
You might be shocked to find out how much screen time everyone in your family is actually viewing. To take inventory, Dr. Lee recommends tracking it, the same way you would with chores or calories. The AAP offers a free media time calculator to help you calculate your daily screen time. To help your child stay within the screen time guidelines, Dr. Lee suggests downloading apps with timers that will automatically shut off media after a certain amount of time and ones that temporarily block social media networks.
But how and when digital media are used should be a whole family conversation, Dr. Lee says. And screen time shouldn’t happen in isolation.
“One of the main points of the new recommendations is the importance of watching these programs and apps together,” she says. “I think that reflects a lot of what parents were already doing. Now they can do it without feeling like they are doing something wrong.”