How Much Is Too Much Screen Time?

How Much Is Too Much Screen Time?

On a recent evening out for dinner, my family and I could not help noticing the table of eight children seated nearby, ranging in ages from about three to eight years of age. It appeared that they were in the restaurant by themselves as there were no obvious supervising adults seated near them. By obvious, I mean that no one came over to check on them or speak to them or even look at them for that matter. While that in itself was noteworthy, it was the lack of interaction between the children that was even more striking. No one spoke to each other, in fact, the entire table was silent. By now you may have guessed that the reason a table of eight children could sit without speaking in a restaurant is that each child had their own electronic device that they were interacting with.

Unlike me, who is constantly taking note of children's behavior, even the other three members of my party (two were millennials), were struck by how unusual the situation was. Was what we were witnessing a good thing or a bad thing?

Like the author, David G. Allan of a recent CNN article entitled "Stop Letting Your Children Stare At IPads in Restaurants, Science Says", I try hard not to be judgemental about other parents. But I have strong opinions about what I think children need, and like the author, there are certain situations when I just can't help myself!

When I was still working in a school setting, I was always asked questions by parents about screen time, and now as a parent coach, the subject of kids and screens comes up all the time. Most parents struggle with setting limits on how many hours, how many shows or videos, or how many games their child can play. Why is this so difficult? It's hard because electronic babysitters (let's call them what they are) are as irresistible for parents as they are for children.

My go-to when advising parents about screen time and their kids are the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on electronic media. In their Media and Young Minds, the Academy spells out clear guidelines for parents about how much screen time is too much. They also explain why more than the recommended times are inappropriate and do not support healthy cognitive, social and emotional, or physical development.

The following guidelines are taken directly from the AAP statement:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid the use of screen media other than video-chatting.

  • Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they are seeing.

  • For children ages, 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.

  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.

  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.

What is noteworthy about the recommendations for children six and older is that they have been revised from earlier guidelines that topped screentime at two hours per day. Given the ubiquitous presence of screens in today's world, the Academy replaced the two-hour cap with the term "consistent limits."

If you visit their website, they offer a template for a Family Media Plan that can be very helpful in managing your children's and your own use of electronics.

Like the Academy, my views on screen time have evolved, and I appreciate the power and presence of screens in our lives. Their ability to calm a screaming child is unprecedented and useful in extreme situations. As was noted by a family member when he employed a children's cartoon on his iPhone to calm his two year old niece during her mother’s visit to an Emergency Room, "it was like she had been injected with a miracle drug!" And that intoxicating effect, for all of its effectiveness, is exactly why parents must be mindful and vigilant about its use.

When the large party of twelve adults finished their meal and approached the children's table and announced that it was time to go, there were groans all around. Noone wanted to stop mid-game or video to leave the restaurant. Disengaging from screens is one of the many complaints that I hear parents make about their children's screen use. When this becomes a common experience for your family, you will have the answer to today's question, “How much is too much screen time?”

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