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Do Your Kids Spend Too Much Time in Front of a Screen?

Pediatricians recommend limiting screen time for young children

A father helping his daughter with her homework as they sit at a dining room table.

Pediatricians recommend limiting screen time for young children

Screen time — time spent in front of smartphones, computers, tablets and television — is an inescapable part of family life today. But how much is too much?

According to a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics, excessive screen time was associated with poorer performance on developmental screen tests, such as communication skills, problem solving and social interactions among very young children over time.

The study — which followed more than 2,441 children from age 2 to 5 — noted that young children across the United States on average spend more than two hours a day on screen, which exceeds the recommended pediatric guidelines.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting digital media use for children 2 to 5 years old to no more than 1 hour per day of high-quality programming to allow “ample time to engage in other activities important to their health and development and to establish media viewing habits associated with lower risk of obesity later in life.”

AAP offers an interactive online media-use planning tool that families can use to manage their digital footprint and create a plan to help kids “growing up digitally” be safe and healthy.

“Screen time guidelines emphasize the importance of media content, encourage parental participation in a child’s media use and recommend establishing tech-free zones,” says Annemarie Selaya, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center in Hillcrest. “They stress that media should in no way replace time spent interacting with others and traditional play, but they do identify many positives that can derive from responsible media use.”

Making screen time work for your family, including your teens

1. Go digital together

Join your kids in digital spaces as another way to spend time together. Play video games with your kids. Ask your teens to walk you through their online world.

2. Keep digital-free zones at home

“Even the most responsible media use can’t substitute for traditional play and interaction between people,” says Dr. Selaya. “Electronics can become addicting for some children and some can become moody and withdrawn with excessive use. It is extremely helpful for families to establish baseline limits on media use and to make electronics off limits at certain times, such as during meals.”

3. Be picky

Not all games and apps are created equally, even if they’re branded as “educational.” Skyping with grandma for 20 minutes isn’t the same as zoning out with Minecraft or YouTube clips for 20 minutes.

Quality counts! The more interaction, the more learning. Passively watching videos doesn’t help toddlers acquire language, for instance. Not sure what’s OK? Common Sense Media reviews kids’ apps, games and programs for appropriateness.

4. Communicate boundaries

Social media can help teens develop identity, and regular online interaction with peers is fine. But if your teen is sexting or posting violent content, it’s a red flag. They should be assessed for other risk factors.

5. Walk the walk

Model healthy device use for your kids by reserving part of your own day for device-free experiences. When possible, offer your kids the gift of your full attention.

6. Prepare for mistakes

Just like in real life, your kids are going to make mistakes as digital citizens. Use these as teachable moments so that they can learn and grow. “The best way to prevent teens from engaging in inappropriate social media behaviors is to maintain good communication with them and teach proper online etiquette,” Dr. Selaya says. “Parents need to be open- minded and learn more about the online world.”

Keeping busy in the real world

Overall, physical activity and face-to-face social interaction remain crucial to good health and children’s development.

“Children must be given the skills to entertain themselves without electronics and must be given the opportunity to interact with others,” says Dr. Selaya. “These are basic life skills that will remain important no matter how widespread electronics become. Kids should have the chance to create things without being guided by electronics; no app can replace blocks and books.”