Not long ago, paediatricians recommended limiting the amount of time kids spend on phones and tablets to just one or two hours a day, with toddlers getting none at all. That has changed, and now parents are supposed to make sure kids have a healthy relationship with their devices. Where do you begin? Here are a few ways to approach the task.
Remember That Screen Time Isn't Everything
Especially when children are young, it's tempting to assume that any time they look at a phone or a tablet or a TV, they are wasting their time. But not all screen time is the same: Children might be drooling and staring at a dumb cartoon, or they might be playing a game that requires creativity or problem solving. Once they get a little bit older, they might be using "screen time" as a way to communicate with their friends, or research real-world activities like crafts they want to build or decisions about what to buy with their allowance.
If you want to set limits, pay attention to what your child is actually doing when they have "screen time". I see a huge difference between my seven-year-old watching videos versus building things in Minecraft. (I feel truly conflicted when he watches videos about Minecraft — he's passively consuming media, but he's also learning skills that he turns around and uses to create.)
Rather than setting time limits, Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive in Their Digital World, suggests encouraging children to spend their time on more creative pursuits: Making videos rather than watching them, for example, or learning to code their own video games when they are old enough.
You may still feel you need to set limits, but they don't have to be restrictions on spending time with screens at all. Instead, you could use a tool like Circle to block access to certain websites at certain times. And you could follow the American Academy of Pediatrics' guideline to keep mealtimes and bedtime tech-free.
Make Sure the Phone Isn't the Only Fun Thing Around
We know that children need real-world play time, and interactions with real people. But just like us, they can gravitate to electronics because those devices are more convenient to use. "Are the dress-up clothes and the LEGO and the musical instruments as accessible as the screens?" Heitner suggests asking yourself as you look around your child's environment.
If you're trying to eat healthy, we've already explained how you can manipulate your environment to make healthy food more available and junk food out of sight and out of mind. That's the same idea here. Even if you set firm rules, kids may spend their time whining about when they can watch YouTube next. But if their favourite toys are easy to get to, they may forget about the phones and tablets, at least temporarily.
That may mean an inconvenient trade-off for you as a parent: Watching videos can keep kids quiet, and is definitely less messy than a LEGO explosion.
Look at Your Own Media Use
It's hard to get kids to look up from their phones if you never do, either. I'm definitely guilty of this, especially if I'm on deadline. Heitner mentions that sometimes she has to arrange meetings with people in other time zones, so she can't always put her phone away in the evenings. But she makes sure to put her phone away at certain times of day as part of her family's routine.
"A great parenting tactic is to be honest with our kids when we're busy," she says. "But I also think we shouldn't have a default be that we're always connected and never unplugged."
Decide Which Rules Make Sense
I didn't really name my kids off the storm lists, but I was tempted.
When the AAP announced their 2016 guidelines about device use for kids, they also launched a Media Plan tool that helps you make a list of rules that work for your family. As you go through, you can check off rules for each of your children, and add your own as you go.
I hoped that the result would be a concise list of family rules I could post on my fridge, but the tool produced a lengthy printout. Still, it was useful to go through all of the rules and consider which ones I actually wanted to follow, and which I didn't.
The biggest impact of the AAP's guidelines, Heitner says (and I agree!) is that parents no longer have to pretend that they do, or should, set strict limits on screen time for their children. And we don't need to look down on families who give their kids more screen time than we do. "It's harder to talk to other parents because we're so busy judging them," she observes.
Without the guilt of the old rules, it may be easier to speak more openly with other parents about what they do when their child throws a tantrum about giving up the screen at bedtime. Or how they decided whether their primary schooler was ready for their own phone. Preschool teachers and special needs therapists (such as speech therapists) are a fantastic resource on early childhood learning, she points out. If you feel comfortable discussing tablet use with teachers, you can get great suggestions for apps that are appropriate for your child — or even for offline activities that could help your kid's playtime to be more well rounded.