Screen time - what we should know and what we can do

From TV to smartphones to social media, our lives are dominated by 24/7 media exposure. Despite this, many children and teens have few rules around their media use. Media & digital devices are an integral part of our world today. The benefits of these devices, if used moderately & appropriately, can be great. However research has shown that face-to-face time with family, friends & teachers, plays a pivotal & even more important role in promoting children's learning & healthy development. Keep the face-to-face up front & don't let it get lost behind a stream of media & technology.

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That’s one of the many interesting findings of the Common Sense Media Census: Media Use by Kids Zero to Eight. Researchers interviewed 1,454 parents of children 0 to 8. Essentially all homes had a mobile device, up from half in 2011. Ninety-five percent of homes had a smartphone, 78% had a tablet, and, as I said before, 42% of children had their own mobile device. What’s interesting is that the 42% number was the same whether families were high- or low-income. Parents are buying mobile devices for their children, plain and simple.

The amount of time that young children spend in front of screens hasn’t changed much since 2011. On average, it’s about two hours a day (ranging from 42 minutes a day for the under-2 crowd to about three hours for the 5-to-8-year-olds). What has changed, though, is that kids 2 to 8 are spending about an hour a day on a mobile device.

In 2011, just six short years ago, kids under 8 spent about five minutes a day on mobile devices.

This explosion of mobile device use in children isn’t surprising, given the explosion of mobile device use overall. It’s also not necessarily bad. Two-thirds of parents in the survey thought that mobile device use helped their children learn, and they are right that there are lots of great ways mobile devices can do just that. Mobile devices can give children access to educational websites, apps, and videos — and things like Google Earth that can teach them about the world.

If that’s all kids did, this would all be good news. But that’s not all they do. Mostly, according to the report, they watch TV and play games on the devices. And 19% use them in restaurants, and 14% use them while eating meals, cutting into conversations they might have had with family and friends.

Also, they spend more time on mobile devices than reading, if they read at all. Only a little more than half of children 0 to 8 read or are read to — and only for an average of 30 minutes. While mobile devices can be used for reading, that’s not what kids are using them for.

Parents, you can help your children balance their online and off-line lives! You can create your personalised family media use plan.Visit HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan to create a personalised Family Media Use Plan that works within your family's values and busy lifestyles. This interactive tool developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) includes a Media Time Calculator that can give you a snapshot of how much time each child is spending on daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, homework, physical activity, and media use. It also includes AAP recommendations on screen-free zones, media manners, and much more.  

Media Use Plan Tips:

  • Screens should always be kept out of kids' bedrooms.  Put in place a "media curfew" at mealtime and bedtime, putting all devices away or plugging them into a charging station for the night. Incoming messages & calls can interfere with your child's sleep. Help children avoid the temptation to use or check devices when they should be sleeping. Emitted light from devices charging may effect the quality of your child's sleep.

  • Excessive media use has been associated with obesity, lack of sleep, school problems, aggression and other behavior issues. Limit entertainment screen time to less than one or two hours per day.

  • Mobile devices will never be as good as interactions with other people, or hands-on experiences, when it comes to learning and development. Make sure children get plenty of those, too. And make sure that mobile devices don’t get in the way of exercise or getting outdoors, both of which are important for children.
  • For children under 2, substitute unstructured play and human interaction for screen time. The opportunity to think creatively, problem solve and develop reasoning and motor skills is more valuable for the developing brain than passive media intake.

  • While it’s tempting to use mobile devices as babysitters or something to amuse your child while you multitask, keep that to a minimum. Instead, do things together with them. Play games together. Learn things together. And if you are using a mobile device, have it bring you together rather than split you apart. 
  • Take an active role in your children's media education by co-viewing programs with them and discussing values.

  • Look for media choices that are educational, or teach good values. Choose programming that models good interpersonal skills for children to emulate.

  • Be firm about not viewing content that is not age appropriate: sex, drugs, violence, etc. Movie and TV ratings exist for a reason, and online movie reviews also can help parents to stick to their rules.

  • The Internet can be a wonderful place for learning. But it also is a place where kids can run into trouble. Keep the computer in a public part of your home, so you can check on what your kids are doing online and how much time they are spending there.

  • Discuss with your children that every place they go on the Internet may be "remembered," and comments they make will stay there indefinitely. Impress upon them that they are leaving behind a "digital footprint." They should not take actions online that they would not want to be on the record for a very long time.

  • Become familiar with popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You may consider having your own profile on the social media sites your children use. By "friending" your kids, you can monitor their online presence. Pre-teens should not have accounts on social media sites. If you have young children, you can create accounts on sites that are designed specifically for kids their age.

  • Talk to them about being good "digital citizens," and discuss the serious consequences of online bullying. If your child is the victim of cyberbullying, it is important to take action with the other parents and the school if appropriate. Attend to children's and teens' mental health needs promptly if they are being bullied online, and consider separating them from the social media platforms where bullying occurs.

  • Make sure kids of all ages know that it is not appropriate or smart to send or receive pictures of people without clothing, or sexy text messages, no matter whether they are texting friends or strangers.

  • Having areas of your home remain screen-free is important. As part of the daily routine, make devices like TVs, phones, computers, games or other electronics off limits at specific times. Dinnertime & before bedtime are important ones, but more extended breaks from technology each day may also be needed, especially for families with very young children. Check out these videos featuring Will Ferrell.

  • If you're unsure of the quality of the "media diet" in your household, consult with your children's pediatrician on what your kids are viewing, how much time they are spending with media, and privacy and safety issues associated with social media and Internet use.