If it seems like every teenager has a smartphone glued to her hand these days, you’re not wrong. About 75% of teenagers today own a smartphone. That’s three out of every four teens with nearly unfettered access to the world wide web.
Combined with time spent on streaming platforms, research for school and other digital activities, it’s no wonder that Generation Z is nicknamed the “always on” generation.
But screen time isn’t always a bad thing.
And in times like these, when we’re all online and plugged in more than we’d like thanks to social distancing, screen time gives us a way to connect.
Still, as a parent, it’s easy to feel guilty about letting kids have “too much” screen time. How much is considered “too much”? There’s no black-and-white answer. But there are guidelines and expert recommendations on screen usage for kids.
If you’re feeling a bit antsy about your family’s media habits lately, here are some tips for setting limits on screen time.
Everyone’s Using More Screens
First, know that you’re not alone if you think your family’s screen usage is up lately. Thanks to a global pandemic that closed down schools and shuttered everyone inside for the last six weeks, media use is on the rise.
One survey found that tablet traffic alone has tripled during the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not hard to see why. With more parents working from home and kids still doing schoolwork remotely, technology makes life more doable during a time when we can’t leave our houses. It’s the new norm for working parents and their offspring.
But even in normal times, screen usage is a regular part of everyday life for most families. One study found that kids ages 8 and up spend an average of over 2 hours a day just watching TV. In fact, TV is still the dominant media for kids over the age of 8.
And with smartphones, tablets and other devices readily available for all age groups today, the stats on screen time aren’t likely to fall.
The “Official” Guidelines
There’s no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to screen time (for adults or kids). But if you’re looking for a place to start, check with the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP outlines the following recommendations on screen time by age:
- Younger than 18 months: Skip the screen time except for video chatting. Children this young should avoid screen time altogether as much as possible.
- 18 to 24 months: Parents should use screens with young toddlers since toddlers learn best with in-person interaction.
- 2 to 5 years: Limit screen time to 1 hour of high-quality content per day for preschoolers. This includes TV, smartphones, apps and all other screened content combined.
Shared and interactive screen time trumps solo time according to the AAP. That means parents of young children especially should heavily supervise and engage with their children’s screen usage. In other words, watch your kiddo’s favorite shows with him. This will give you a chance to see what he’s watching and give him a chance to share the experience with you.
For older kids, the AAP doesn’t offer time or device limits. Instead, practical guidance includes:
- Setting limits on screen usage: Screen limits vary by age. Use your judgment when setting limits on media in your home. Just make sure that your kids have time to do all the things they need to do. On average, kids need between 8-14 hours of sleep every night depending on age. They also need an hour of physical activity each day, plus time for unstructured, screen-free playtime and time for other things, such as homework and meals. Screen time shouldn’t interfere with the basics.
- Developing a family media plan: The AAP offers resources for parents on setting screen time limits, including a family media plan that you can use to make sure everyone’s on the same page. If you think it would help your family to have things written down, create a screen time plan.
- Talking to your kids about screens: You don’t need to go into graphic detail about the dangers of online predators with your preschoolers, but do teach your kids how to be safe online from an early age. For young toddlers and elementary-aged kids, this likely means setting parental controls and explaining that it’s for their safety. For older kids, that might mean a deeper conversation about cyberbullying, strangers and predators, and adult content. Screens aren’t inherently bad. Like any tool, they can be useful and helpful or dangerous. And like any other tough subject — sex, alcohol, mental health issues and other things people deal with as they get older — screen usage requires open communication between parents and kids.
- Divvying up the screen time: There’s a difference between binge-watching Paw Patrol and researching how volcanoes form. But both have their time and place. Experts recommend allocating more time for educational content than pure entertainment. There’s no set percentage for either category, especially since some content is both entertaining and educational. Use your own judgment in divvying up your kids’ screen usage.
Child, Content & Context
Still worried that your kids will turn into tech zombies? Consider this advice from health experts on screen time: Think child, content and context.
- Child: You know your kids best. That means you can decide whether your 13-year-old is ready for PG-13 movies or not. Factor in your child’s personality, ability to handle and process different types of content, and other aspects before giving the green light on screen usage.
- Content: High-quality content beats entertaining fluff. Quality matters when it comes to screen time. Research suggests that excessive or low-quality media can lead to actual health problems. Think obesity, less sleep, behavioral issues, loss of social skills and even violence. Choose live-action programming over animated TV when possible, especially for young children. Younger kids learn better when things move in real time (as opposed to the flashy action of a cartoon).
- Context: Put your kids’ media content in context with the real world. And take an active interest in what they’re seeing, playing or doing. Not only will providing context help your kids benefit from their screen time, but it’ll also boost your bonding. And if you need more ideas on how to create a healthy environment around and outside of screen time, check out these tips from KidsHealth.org.
You might feel overwhelmed when trying to keep up with official advice on how to maintain a healthy media balance in your home.
But guidelines on screen time boil down to things you already know how to do as a parent: Set boundaries, supervise as appropriate and correct when needed. Teaching your kids how to use screen time — and media in general — early in life will help them use it appropriately as they get older.