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Updated screen-time guidelines: What parents really need to know

The number one question that I’m asked by parents, as I travel throughout the country is, “How much screen-time is okay for kids?”

It’s the million dollar question that parents of ‘screenagers’ want to know. Just how much is ‘safe’? When does too much become too much?

Many parents (as well as educators and health professionals) are surprised to learn that we have recommendations regarding screen-time in Australia. You can read more about them here. Up until recently, Australia’s screen-time guidelines have been fairly consistent with the recommendations suggested by The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). However, in late 2015 the AAP announced that they were in the process of revising their screen-time guidelines (much to the relief of researchers, parents and educators).

Many parents, educators and health professionals believed that the AAP’s previous guidelines that prescribed specific screen-time limits, based simply on a child’s chronological age, were outdated and too simplistic (not to mention, unrealistic for many children who using screens throughout their day, both at home and school, for both leisure and learning). Many academics, educators and parents (who failed miserably when it came to enforcing these time-limits) considered the previous guidelines as paternalistic. There was too much emphasis on limiting screen-time and not enough guidance as to how to actually use technology in appropriate and healthy way with kids (as many of you know I believe that ‘digital amputation’ is not the solution for our kids).

So I was delighted when I read that the AAP AAP updated their screen-time recommendations in October 2016. These revised guidelines acknowledge the screen-saturated world in which we’re now raising kids. In the previous AAP guidelines there was an underlying assumption that all screen-time was toxic for kids and therefore needed to be used sparingly (when the research tells us that’s certainly not the case- kids can benefit from using screens when used intentionally and in developmentally-appropriate ways).

However, the revised guidelines adopt a more realistic and helpful approach, especially for bamboozled parents who are struggling to navigate the digital terrain with their tech-savvy kids (we’re often given conflicting and inaccurate advice about screens and kids to further complicate matters). It provides practical and realistic suggestions that parents need to consider when determining their child’s screen-time. The updated documents consider the positive potential that technology and screens offer children, rather than simply prescribing the enforcement of strict time limits (phew- what a relief!).

Instead, the new guidelines focus on how to best use media in ways that are commensurate with kids’ developmental priorities.

The revised guidelines consider both the risks and benefits of kids using technology. This is a welcomed relief, as both a researcher (and a mum!), because we know that complete digital abstinence is not a viable, long-term solution that will serve our kids. Our kids want to use technology. So we need to teach them healthy and helpful ways to do so and to mitigate any potential threats.

The AAP released three policy statements (you can read the 0-5, 5-18 years and a technical report here) and in addition the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also released a document that focuses  on technology’s use in early learning (0-8 years) as increasing numbers of early childhood educators are seeking advice about young kids and screens.

The key AAP changes that parents need to know

// 0-18 months– No media use at all is recommended for children under 18 months. The only exception to this recommendation is if families use Skype or FaceTime (video-chat technologies) to stay connected with one another, so long as parental support is included as part of this screen-time activity.

WHY NO SCREEN-TIME? We know that infants’ brains are undergoing rapid neurological development in the first three years of life especially (85% of brain architecture is believed to be be formed in the first three years). Given infants have such limited waking hours, we have to ensure that screens aren’t eroding their key developmental priorities such as sleep, play, physical movement, language and nutrition. The premature introduction of screens has not, at this point in time, been shown to have benefits to an infant.

// 1.5- 2 year olds– Parental co-viewing, otherwise referred to as ‘shared media use’ is strongly encouraged at this age. Where possible, children should be using and viewing media with an adult and should be using quality, educational media (and limited entertainment at this age). There are some distinctions between educational and entertainment media. It was interesting to note that the AAP actually specified recommended children’s media producers, PBS kids and Sesame Street Workshop because they design media based on kids’ learning needs and adhere to developmental guidelines.

Research has still yet to demonstrate the benefits of media use for children under the age of two. However, there appears to be learning benefits, as long as a parent is actively engaged in the co-viewing experience with young children as it’s an opportunity to hear and use language and build relationships.

// 2- 5 year olds– Limit media use to no more than one hour per day for pre-schoolers. This is despite studies that show most pre-schoolers are consuming 2 hours/day of screen media. Again, parents should be seeking high-quality educational and pro-social media content, and should continue to co-view the media experience with their child.

WHY CO-VIEWING? There’s ample research that tells us that co-viewing enhances children’s learning when using screens. Co-viewing helps young children make meaning from the screen and connect the 2D situation to a real-life, 3D experience (research also tells us that a ‘video deficit’ persists until kids are about 30 months, meaning that they find it hard to make meaning from a screen, as compared to a real-life, hands-on experience).

// 6 years +– For children aged 6 years and older parents, educators and health professionals must ensure that media use does not supersede essential developmental activities like play, relationships (i.e. time with friends and family), and sleep. The document states, “…make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviours essential to health.”

// Parents are also encouraged to take time away from screens and engage in other (off-screen) activities with their child. The AAP suggested that children really need active media mentors that are alert, aware and involved in their children’s online activities.

// Parents should also consider establishing tech-free zones and times. The AAP now specifically state no media use one hour before bedtime and during meals (screen dinners) and in the car.

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 It was great to see that the AAP released an online tool via the Healthy Children.org website which provides a simple online tool to calculate healthy screen-time limits. Parents can enter details that will enable them to calculate healthy screen-time limits, based on their child’s chronological age and other developmental properties. You can create a media plan here.

It was also reassuring to see that the AAP are now encouraging parents, educators and health professionals to look beyond simply quantifying ‘how much’ screen-time children accrue each day.  In particular, they propose that parents consider when kids use screens (use before or during sleep time can impede the quality and quantity of sleep) and where they use screens (and equally as important- where are the tech-free zones).

This is exactly what I propose in my book Raising Your Child in a Digital World.  Screens must not displace kids’ basic, developmental priorities and the AAP made this very clear. And the only way that we can determine that, is by looking at the whole picture (and not just narrowly looking at ‘how much’ screen-time kids accumulate).

Limitations of the AAP revised guidelines

I’m a HUGE fan of the revised guidelines and they’re fairly consistent to what I share in my Parent Seminars.

However, the AAP’s revised guidelines did not specifically address:

// what kids are doing with screens. Is it leisure or learning? Is it active or passive? Are they creating, communicating, collaborating or consuming?; and

// how kids use screens. There are potential risks to children’s physical health and development if screens are used prematurely, excessively or inappropriately. In particular, there are potential risks to their vision, hearing and posture, as well as their social and emotional development if screens are used in the wrong ways.

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I’d love to know in the comments below, do you agree with the AAP’s revised guidelines? What would you like to know more about?

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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Comments

  1. Naomi L says

    ” The AAP now specifically state no media use one hour before bedtime and during meals (screen dinners) and in the car.”

    Could you please explain why the guideline recommends no media use in the car?

    Thank you
    Naomi

    • Kristy says

      Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for your question.

      My understanding for this recommendation from what I’ve read from the AAP is twofold: (i) it’s a distraction issue- adolescents are using mobile devices whilst driving and this has resulted in increasing accident rates in this age range- digital distraction (so it’s not necessarily a recommendation applicable to younger children) and it’s also about teaching children healthy technology habits from a young age so that they become accustomed to cars being tech-free spaces and (ii) travel time, like meal areas, are seen as places where children and parents can interact. Cars can be a time for interaction and discussion and screens can potentially erode these opportunities for connection and language development.

      As a researcher (and mum), I’m also concerned that kids aren’t getting unplugged time- they need white space and opportunities to calm their brain and overloaded nervous systems. And a car trip, even if only a brief period, provides them with this opportunity. It allows them to enter what neuroscientists call “the mind wandering state”.

      In my seminars, I recommend that parents identify specific tech-free zones in their families- I recommend meal areas, bedrooms, play spaces (we know, for example that background TV can have an adverse impact on children’s language development), bathrooms and cars (but I make the exception for long-haul travel, where screens can provide entertainment value).

  2. Karen says

    I’m curious to know the reason behind ‘not in the car’. Can you please clarify the specific recommendation not to use screen devises in the car? Is it to do with potentially harming eyesight? Thank you.

    • Kristy says

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks for your question. I haven’t seen any research evidence to suggest that screen-time in cars is harmful for visual development, specifically.

      My understanding for this recommendation from what I’ve read from the AAP is twofold: (i) it’s a distraction issue- adolescents are using mobile devices whilst driving and this has resulted in increasing accident rates in this age range- digital distraction (so it’s not necessarily a recommendation applicable to younger children) and it’s also about teaching children healthy technology habits from a young age so that they become accustomed to cars being tech-free spaces and (ii) travel time, like meal areas, are seen as places where children and parents can interact. Cars can be a time for interaction and discussion and screens can potentially erode these opportunities for connection and language development.

      As a researcher (and mum), I’m also concerned that kids aren’t getting unplugged time- they need white space and opportunities to calm their brain and overloaded nervous systems. And a car trip, even if only a brief period, provides them with this opportunity. It allows them to enter what neuroscientists call “the mind wandering state”.

      In my seminars, I recommend that parents identify specific tech-free zones in their families- I recommend meal areas, bedrooms, play spaces (we know, for example that background TV can have an adverse impact on children’s language development), bathrooms and cars (but I make the exception for long-haul travel, where screens can provide entertainment value).

      I hope this helps.
      Kristy

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