New report: How much time should children spend with digital media?

November 02, 2016

By Leah Scherzer, MD, Attending Physician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children

Have you ever seen a toddler scrolling through their parents’ phone, swiping away on a tablet, or navigating through the TV guide to find their favorite show? Every day I see children of all ages fixated on screens.  A new American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) technical report shows that there has been a significant increase in media use over the past decade and with that has come new risks and benefits.

The uptick in digital media exposure correlates directly to accessibility of mobile devices.  The study found most 2-year-olds used mobile devices on a daily basis, and most 1-year-olds had already used a mobile device.  Use has also increased in other age groups with 75 percent of teenagers owning a smartphone and 50 percent of adolescents reporting feeling “addicted” to their phones.  One study from 2012 suggests that teens 14-17 yr. old sent about 100 texts a day.  New apps are being developed each day making it hard for parents, teachers, and pediatricians to stay abreast of what children are being exposed to.

While it is tempting to introduce kids to this new technology, the increased use of digital media poses health and safety risks to our children. These include: obesity, poor sleep patterns, cyberbullying, exposure to unsafe or inappropriate content, and compromised privacy. However, there are benefits of digital media use for children, including quick access to information, valuable support networks and connectivity on social media, and video chat capabilities with relatives to maintain social connections. 

The most important thing that I tell parents is it’s all about balance and personalizing media use for the individual child. The AAP addresses the increase of digital media use in children, with the following guidelines and recommendations by age.

  • Birth to 18 months — Avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting.  Many parents may believe that there are benefits to their babies and toddlers playing educational games on a tablet, but evidence shows limited benefits for children younger than 2-years-old.
  • 18-24 months – Limited use.  Choose high-quality programming and use media together with your child. Do not feel pressured to introduce your child to technology.
  • 2-5 years—Limit use to 1 hour per day.  Co-view high quality educational television programming or learning apps and interact with your child and the program to improve cognitive outcomes.
  • 6 years of age and older— Limit “entertainment” screen time to 2 hours per day.  Though there are no specific recommendations, older children should limit “entertainment” screen time to 2 hours per day or less. As many children need to use computers for schoolwork, parents should not count this as screen time. Encourage children and adolescents to engage in other activities like reading, hands-on exploration and social interaction with other children. Promote at least 1 hour of physical activity per day.

In addition to the AAP guidelines, consider the following general recommendations for the entire family:

  • Lead by example and take part in limiting screen time.  Many devices offer timers or automatic shut off options to serve as reminders that it’s time to unplug.
  • Have “media free” zones, such as at mealtimes and in bedroom.  Make mealtime an opportunity to talk with one another, have a docking station where parents and children can store devices and avoid temptations.
  • No media use 1 hour before bedtime.  Exposure to blue light from screens affects melatonin levels and can delay and disrupt sleep.
  • Have ongoing communication as a family about online safety and citizenship.  Parents should monitor children’s media use by testing applications prior to allowing use and engaging with their kids on social media.  Parents should talk with their children about privacy and the dangers of the Internet like cyberbullying and Internet predators.

For more information on recommendations for children and digital media use, check out the AAP study on Children and Adolescents and Digital Media here. Parents can also create their own Family Media Use Plan.

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