Two generations ago, the only “screen time” parents worried about was a few television channels. Now, kids have endless cable and online viewing; DVDs, DVRs, and downloads; Internet, gaming, and social-media options beyond counting; and the ability to carry most of the above in their pockets. For today’s parents, the implications can be terrifying. Every week you hear of someone who crashed a car while checking e-mail, or stepped in front of a truck while playing Pokemon Go.
Horror stories aside, nobody wants their kids spending more time with the screen than with the three-dimensional world. Still, even the American Academy of Pediatrics is reconsidering its longstanding recommendation that nobody under eighteen should be allowed more than two hours of “recreational” screen time a day—which was already something few parents of any tween-or-older would dare be dogmatic about.
But since it’s a parent’s duty to set some rules regarding screen use, here are a few guidelines:
• Under age 3: Anyone who can’t yet be trusted to handle a portable screen without throwing it should have limited exposure to screens of any sort. If you let your toddler watch television or videos, stick to 30 minutes at a time, with low-key imagery and no commercials. The high-speed, constantly shifting nature of much programming is seriously stressful to children this age.
• Ages 3–5: Children are ready for an hour or two of supervised daily television, and to operate touch screens. If they need day care or preschool, beware of centers that keep videos running all day.
• Ages 5–7: Kids are in school daily, likely exposed to regular screen time there. Find out what your own school is doing and what selection guidelines it uses. If evening television is part of your own routine, the kids can join you; independent screen time is best limited to an hour a day.
• Ages 8–11: By now, kids are regularly using computers for homework and are ready to make many viewing and web-surfing decisions. They’re also ready for their own portable devices. Don’t just dictate what they can look at when; talk with them and find out their interests and desires before passing final judgment on parameters.
• Ages 12 and up: Kids are making a large number of their own decisions, much to the unease of many parents. If your kids have experience handling screen time responsibly, and if you maintain an open, mutually respectful relationship, there’s no need to let your imagination get panicky. If you feel they’re developing potentially dangerous screen habits, express your concern and get their input before you announce any new rules. Whenever possible, let them propose reasonable limits.
And a few screen-time principles appropriate with children of all ages:
• Encourage kids to pursue non-screen interests. If your nine-year-old is fascinated by electronic baseball, suggest he try out for a real-world baseball team.
• Insist the screens be put away during group activities. It’s not a family dinner if everyone is eating with one hand and working his or her smartphone with the other.
• MOST important: Set an example! If you spend each evening in your room with your computer, or go around with eyes constantly on your phone, kids learn that screen obsession is normal behavior.
Monitor the importance you place on video and computers. Real people—including your kids—come first!