*This blog is a guest post written by Ryan Cunningham.*
Is it just me, or does it seem like screens are everywhere nowadays? It’s hard to escape screens when they’re literally around every corner: home, school, work, around friends, church, etc. Oh, the love/hate relationship we have with screens. That said, one major question parents have been wrestling with for a while now is how much screen time is appropriate for my family?
Even with the birth of the television, the appropriate amount of time in front of the “tube” has always been a question. So, it’s no surprise that this concern has only magnified in importance with the advent of smartphones and the internet.
No longer are there only three or four channels to choose from, there’s content that’s readily available that never signs off at the end of the day. When we talk about “screen time” in the modern sense, we’re talking about the combined time in front of all types of screens: smartphones, tablets, computers, TVs, even wristwatches!
Screens – They’re Literally Everywhere
Today, mobile device use is almost universal for the average American family. According to a study done by Common Sense Media comparing media use by children 8 and under between 2011 and 2017, 98% of American households have a mobile device in the home (1). The same study mentioned that one-third of all screen time is mobile. Additionally, the average amount of time per day spent on mobile devices has increased to 48 minutes. It seems that we can no longer turn our heads and pretend screen time is just going to go away.
So with all the accessible and available screens, how much screen time is appropriate for my kids? Is there a definitive answer out there? The short answer is no (sorry). There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for all ages and all people. A lot of variables are involved: family lifestyle and values, age and general health of the children, and quality of content consumed. Also, scientific studies specifically focusing on mobile device screen time is limited. To make matters more complicated, all types of content consumption aren’t created equal:
- Passive consumption (watching YouTube videos)
- Interactive consumption (playing video games and web browsing)
- Communication (texting, video chat, and social media)
- Creation (writing a report, recording a song, designing digital media)
Despite there not being a “silver bullet” answer, governments and professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), provide helpful recommendations. The AAP recommends “parents and caregivers develop a family media plan that takes into account the health, education and entertainment needs of each child as well as the whole family.” (2) The details of these recommendations will be explored shortly.
The Science Behind Our Screens
Are there any scientific studies on this particular subject? Yes, but we are limited due to this being a major issue only within the last couple of decades. But one of the systematic reviews we found helpful was published in early 2019 by the University College of London (UCL) Institute of Child Health (3). Basically, the researchers located, evaluated, and synthesized 13 studies on the health effects of screen time on children and young people.
The studies in question each looked at different health domains from screen time exposure: obesity, sleep, mental health, and so on. The conclusion? “There is evidence that higher levels of screen time are associated with a variety of health harms for CYP (Children and Young People), with evidence strongest for adiposity [obesity], unhealthy diet, depressive symptoms and quality of life.” To be fair, there were some limitations with this systematic review, as is with many scientific studies. Nevertheless, this provides a good foundation to support the notion you probably already had: too much screen time is bad.
Time For A Change
So now what? Yes, studies show that too much screen time is unhealthy, but what do we do about it? Where do we start? How much screen time is appropriate? Good questions! Remember, there’s no silver bullet answer. But life can’t wait until all scientific inquiry for a given problem has concluded to make one indisputable recommendation; you and I need rational, relevant, and current guidance right now. For this, the AAP has two major recommendations on what you can start doing with/for your family right now (2):
1. Develop a plan
Develop a family media plan that takes into account the health, education and entertainment needs of each child and the whole family. In this view, your role as a parent isn’t just to be a police counting minutes of total screen time. You become more of a “media mentor.” This is a chance to guide your child into healthy media habits. We recommend using the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Family Media Plan tool here.
2. Use these general media guidelines
- For children younger than 18 months, avoid the use of screen media other than video-chatting.
- Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
- For children ages, 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they’re seeing and apply it to the world around them.
- For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media. Make sure that media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
- Designate media-free times together, like dinner or driving. You can also choose media-free rooms at home, such as bedrooms.
- Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.
Everything In Moderation
When it comes to figuring out what healthy screen time looks like for your family, it might help to think of media usage as a diet. Like healthy eating, quality screen content, effectively monitored, occupies an appropriate place in our modern life. No single food diet is right for everyone, and there’s no set number of hours per day that will be right for every family. Heed the guidelines above by the AAP and use the family media plan tool. These will help you create safety measures that will provide a little more peace of mind.
1) “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Kids Age Zero to Eight 2017 | Common Sense Media.” Common Sense Media: Ratings, Reviews, and Advice, 19 Oct. 2017
2) “American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use.” AAP.org, 21 Oct. 2016