There’s one in every neighborhood: a parent who allows unlimited screen time. They exist to make the rest of us feel better. Our own offspring might spend hours texting or watching cartoons. But at least we have rules. Our kids can sustain a conversation, cope with fleeting moments of boredom and last a birthday party without demanding a video game.
When we pass these other families in the supermarket, their dazed toddlers staring into iPads, we think — smug but terrified — we’re not that bad.
We know it’s crucial to stimulate and speak to young children, and our generation of parents complies to a possibly unprecedented — and exhausting — degree. Kamenetz notes that we need occasional breaks from this. She bemoans “an ideological stance that judges mothers for not being fully available to their children at all times and that scapegoats working-class families in particular.”
Class issues buzz around conversations about screen time. We’ve all read about the Silicon Valley executives who won’t let their children go online. Mothers who used to boast that their babies drank only breast milk now claim their preschoolers have never touched an iPad. (These same children will later be dispatched to pricey, screen-free summer camps.)
Low-income families — and especially single parents — can’t afford to police their children’s screen use as assiduously. Kamenetz writes that this requires more social supports, like guaranteed paid parental leave. I’d argue that universal health care and a higher minimum wage would help, too.
Of course, screens are an issue even in countries with great social services. In 2016, the city of Helsinki ran a campaign warning Finnish parents that they were neglecting children by spending too much time online.
Alas, the evidence is incomplete. Researchers aren’t allowed to overstimulate a random sample of babies to see what happens to their brains. (Though as Kamenetz says, you can do this to mice, and they go a little nuts.) Scientists even have trouble running studies in which some participants watch less; one said he could get families to reduce their screen times only by 20 minutes. And the iPad hasn’t even celebrated its eighth birthday.
But there are worrying correlations. Kids who watch more than two hours of TV per day have double the risk of childhood obesity. Those who watch screens before bed sleep less, making it harder to concentrate and learn. And simulated violence can desensitize children to real-life suffering, and is linked to increased anxiety and fear.
Living in a digital age has its benefits — practically instant access to information and the ability to connect with friends and family across the country. Naturally, people are more plugged in than ever, including young children. In fact, a study in JAMA Pediatrics found that between 1997 and 2014, screen time doubled for kids 2 years old and younger — but at what cost?
Spending too much time on devices — whether it’s playing video games, watching television, searching the internet, or even engaging with “educational” apps — can be harmful to a young child’s physical and mental health notes that children who spend more time looking at screens are more likely to be overweight and have disrupted sleep.
So, how can you help your kids develop healthy digital habits? Some insights and tips for creating a digital diet that works for your family.
How much screen time is too much for children?
The answer often depends on age, but generally, less is better. Dr. Land finds the American Academy of Pediatric's Council on Communications and Media guidelines useful for navigating your child's screen time:
6 everyday screen-time tips:
Overall, it’s important to teach your family to develop a healthy relationship with digital devices. Here are tips you can start using today.
1. Set limits
The age guidelines above can help you determine whether to cut back on your child’s screen time. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Your digital diet will depend on your family. The American Academy of Pediatrics developed an interactive Family Media Plan so you can easily create a more personalized plan, set goals, and establish rules that work for your family.
2. Be an example
It’s important to take stock of how often we interact with our own devices, too. “If our kids see us distracted by our phones,” Dr. Land notes, “they feel ignored.” When you’re with your children, make them your priority — not your phone. Try setting your phone on silent and turning off notifications, so you won’t get a ping for every news alert or text.
“Children under 2 can’t learn from screens yet,” Dr. Land explains. “They learn by interacting with their caregivers.” So instead of watching television or using an app, spend time singing, talking, reading, or playing together. “These activities will always be a better way to teach vocabulary, language, and social skills,” says Dr. Land.
3. Keep mealtime screen-free
Meals are a time for families to reconnect and focus on each other — not focus on screens. Implement a “no devices at the table” rule. If you’re out at a restaurant, bring activities like a pad of paper and crayons or stickers to keep young children occupied. Need help keeping mealtime as stress-free as possible?
Sleep is paramount: I recommended no screens before bedtime, and none in bedrooms, ever. If your child is online I advocate talking to your kids making questions like “what did you see online today?” part of dinnertime conversations.
4. Shut off screens before bed
For kids and adults alike, it’s especially important to wind down at night. Dr. Land recommends avoiding screens 1 to 2 hours before bedtime. Try removing all screens from the bedroom. Instead, designate a specific area of your home where everyone can charge their devices overnight.
5. Share screen time
When your children do watch television or use an online app, join them. By engaging with them, you’ll encourage social interaction, bonding, and learning. Try repeating the information that’s shown and then ask your child to say it back to you. Make connections between what’s seen on screen and the real world. If a television show features a bird chirping, for example, take your child for a walk and point out birds and the sounds they’re making. “This helps them connect digital learning with the world around them,” says Dr. Land.
6. Avoid using devices to calm kids
While this approach may work in the short term, Dr. Land notes that using devices to calm kids prevents them from learning to self-regulate or self-soothe. Instead, help them focus on how to physically respond to their emotions using techniques such as deep breathing. You can also talk through the moment, hug them, sit quietly as they work through it, or distract them with something other than a screen — like their favorite book or song.
Thomas Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Addiction Specialist