In a world where we are surrounded 24/7 by all kinds of digital media from iPhones to electronic billboards, trying to figure out the maximum — or better yet optimal — amount of screen time that's good for kids has been a challenge.
For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics set a simple and clear ceiling: no more than two hours parked in front of the TV for any child over the age of two. But at its annual meeting in San Francisco on Friday, the group, acknowledging that some online media exposure can be beneficial, announced that it has radically revised its thinking on the subject.
The first big change is in how it defines screen time in the first place. The AAP now says that its limits apply solely to time spent on entertainment and not on educational tasks such as practicing multiplication facts online or reading up on the history of Fort McHenry and the Star Spangled Banner. The entertainment category itself is very broad and can include old-fashioned broadcast TV, streaming services like Netflix, video games consoles and being on social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter. The new recommendations are also more specific to the age of the child and, as a whole, are more generous.
For the youngest set — infants and toddlers younger than 18 months — Jenny Radesky, Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, and other authors of the guidelines now explicitly say that video-chatting with grandma and grandpa (or anyone else parents approve of) is okay. But that's it. Period.
The guidelines become progressively looser after that. Between 18 to 24 months of age, they say parents "who want to" can introduce snippets of things like educational shows. However, the AAP emphasizes that parents should "prioritize creative, unplugged playtime for infants and toddlers."
For 2 to 5 year olds, they recommend a max one hour per day of "high-quality programs" and give PBS and Sesame Network shows as examples. This does not give you permission to use your iPad as an electronic baby sitter! "Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them," the AAP said.
"Even though the media landscape is constantly changing," Chassiakos explained, "some of the same parenting rules apply."
It's at age 6 and older that you see the biggest changes. Instead of offering specific limits on digital media, the guidelines call for "consistent" limits that are up to individual families and advises parents to develop a media plan that fits their lifestyle. The message is one of striking a healthy balance between using media, sleep, physical activity, socializing with friends and other activities. The AAP warned that problems can arise when media use displaces hands-on exploration and face-to-face interaction.
The guidelines come at a time when there is increasing concern of Internet addiction, which originally came up as a hoax, in the medical community. While it's not officially listed in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — the bible of mental health that is used for medical coding — the book does recognize that "Internet gaming disorder" is something that needs further study. A recent survey found that half of teens feel that they are addicted to their mobile devices and rehab centers are starting to open up around the country.
Marc N. Potenza, a professor of psychiatry and child study at Yale University School of Medicine who specializes in addiction, and others have compared Internet addiction to gambling and sex addiction in its ability to lead to continuing engagement in a behavior despite adverse consequences.
The AAP's Radesky advised parents to proactively think about their children's media use and talk with them about it.
"[T]oo much media use can mean that children don't have enough time during the day to play, study, talk, or sleep," she said. "What's most important is that parents be their child's 'media mentor.' That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn."
For more health news, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here.