The What, When, and How of Screen Time

Hansa Bhargava, MD


March 01, 2016

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Pediatricians, what are the families that you see talking about these days? Screen time has definitely been in the news lately. Let's talk about some facts.

Fact #1: A recent Common Sense media survey showed that teens are spending almost 9 hours daily on media, not including homework, and tweens are spending almost 6 hours.[1]

Fact #2: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) made a preliminary statement about screen time guidelines in the fall of 2015.[2] They stated that parents should guide kids in the quality of media content and that media is similar to any other environment.

Fact #3: Some initial research has shown that media use displaces family interaction and can impact language development in young children.

So, what's your doctor's advice? Here is my take as a clinician. Number one, young kids should still have limited screen time. We know that most "learning programs" are never as beneficial as talking, reading, or singing to your child. With data suggesting that some kids, particularly those in lower-income families, may hear as many as 30 million fewer words by age 3,[3] parents should be encouraged to talk, read, and sing with their young babies regularly. And if they choose to watch a program, do it together with the child so that there is opportunity for discussion and social interaction.

Number two, older kids can have screen time, but the three questions are what, when, and how much. Parents should pay attention to what is being consumed. This is a great opportunity to advise kids on how to interact with it. With social sites such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, you want to know what the kids are posting about themselves and others, and what they are reading. When matters, too. Is it when they are supposed to be sleeping or when they are in class? Or is it at homework time? Let's advise parents to put structure around this as well. And how much? If a 10-year-old is spending 6 hours on a screen, something is being compromised. For a child with school, sleep requirements, and activities, there shouldn't be that much time left in the day for screens. Just making a parent aware of how much media usage there is can be the first step.

Last, parents should practice what they preach. My own son calls me out if I respond to a text in the car. Just as a parent can't tell a child to eat carrots while they're eating chips themselves, the same applies to this issue.

Let's all try to do a bit better. The good news is that we should have some revised guidelines about screen time from the AAP this year. In the meantime, let's treat it as any other playground and encourage parents to put the guardrails down.


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