Maybe it’s because we didn’t grow up with smartphones and social media, or possibly it’s just hard to set limits on something we often overindulge in ourselves, but if you’re a parent struggling to keep your child’s screen time in check, you’re not alone.
Kids today spend an average of seven hours a day engaged with media – including TV, computers, phones and tablets, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP’s recommendation however, is that screen time be avoided for children under the age of 2 and limited to two hours a day of high-quality content for children and teens.
While there are plenty of positive educational and social aspects of digital media, excessive screen time has been linked to attention problems, trouble sleeping, vision issues, unhealthy eating habits and decreased physical activity, and may even balloon into a full-blown addiction.
“Some children become more attached than others to screen devices, so it’s better to work with this before any type of problem develops, rather than waiting until there becomes a problem,” says Shelley Spencer-Hellmich, a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed clinical addiction counselor who practices on Indianapolis’ north side.
The key, experts say, is for parents to set and stick with realistic limits that take into account the when, what and where of a child engaging with media:
When: How much time are you comfortable with your child spending in front of a screen each day? Is one long stretch of screen time okay, or should it be broken up into small chunks of time?
What: With what kind of media is your child engaging? Can you strike a balance between educational and entertainment-based media?
Where: Are there areas of your home where you don’t want your child to use media, such as at the dinner table, in the bathroom or in their bedroom?
“Given my research, media is often associated with negative consequences and overuse, but it can also be rich and educational,” says Nicole Martins, assistant media professor at Indiana University who studies the effects of media on child audiences. “It’s part of their lives. To eliminate it completely is not practical, but we need to think about how and when we use it.”
Be consistent at an early age
Ideally, as soon as a child is old enough to engage with media, consistent limits should be put in place – which parents may way to write down to hold themselves accountable. “You want to set limits in a way that they understand you’re thinking of their best interests, rather than simply trying to control their day,” Spencer-Hellmich says.
Research has found that having a routine around screen time and disengaging at a natural stopping point – such as the end of an episode or once dinner is ready – makes the transition away from media easier for kids. Similarly, if a device’s battery runs out or WiFi is cut off at a certain time each night, experts say kids tend to accept this technology-based finality more readily than a parent’s mandate.
Set screen-free times and locations
When thinking about when and where your children use media, you may consider making certain times and areas of the house screen-free.
“You can set a media-free dinner, so that no one brings their devices to the table, including parents,” Martins suggests. “A good rule of thumb is if no one is using media, then shut it off. Everyone’s experiences and interactions will be more rich when there is not that element of distraction.”
Bedtime is another important transition to keep in mind, since the blue light given off by many tablets and phones can hinder sleep and late night text messages and alerts can disturb healthy sleeping patterns. Experts recommend turning off screens at least a half an hour before bed and charging devices overnight in a different room.
Model responsible media use
Even with clear screen time limits in place, don’t underestimate the effect that your personal media habits have on your children.
“Practice being a role model yourself and self-limit your media intake,” Spencer-Hellmich says, acknowledging that unplugging can be as difficult for parents as it is for kids. Without “practicing what you preach” however, your message of the importance of downtime will be lost. Interacting with media alongside your child can present opportunities to talk about the importance of unplugging periodically, what kind of TV shows and games are appropriate and the dangers of sharing too much online.
Of course, there will be days when screen time limits aren’t strictly followed, and that’s to be expected, experts say. As long as you typically follow clear, realistic limits on how your child engages with their various devices and screens, you are on the right track to maintaining a healthy media diet.