Perhaps television and computer screens aren’t so bad for young children.
At least not all the time.
New research-based guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) take a more nuanced view of children’s use of media, technology, and screens.
The guidelines state that media can have both positive and negative effects on development and are an inevitable part of modern life.
“You have to think about balance in life,” said Dr. Corinn Cross, F.A.A.P., a pediatrician, parent of three children under age 10, and a member of the AAP’s Council on Communications and Media.
Rules for younger children
In the new guidelines, the organization acknowledged for the first time that for children younger than 18 months, media use can have a benefit.
However, the pediatricians limited that use to video chatting.
Parents, the organization said, no longer need to worry that a video visit with grandma across the country could be harming their baby.
The guidelines also relax recommendations for 18- to 24-month-olds, stating that children can begin to learn from select high-quality programming and apps at that age if used with an adult.
For children ages 2 through 5, the group recommends limiting screen use to up to one hour a day of high-quality programming, such as PBS Kids, that adults view along with children.
“Not all things made for kids are good for kids,” Cross said.
She explained that young kids can best develop skills, such as persistence when working on a task, and emotional regulation, through unstructured play.
“They need to learn those skills in order to be able to function in preschool,” she said.
She advised against a parent always handing a child an iPhone as a way to calm them down.
What about older children?
For kids ages 5 through 18, the organization doesn’t provide one-size-fits-all time limits but suggests that parents provide guidance regarding media use that reflects personalization and balance.
The AAP recommends creating a family media use plan that goes beyond how much time is spent on media and considers how it is used.
“Kids are growing up in a type of world very different from the world we grew up in,” she said.
Cross said that for older kids the guidelines acknowledge the reality of multitasking on various devices. She recommended taking an approach that focuses on balance that allows time for activities including sleep, an hour of physical activity, school, family time, and even downtime and boredom.
“Some days you’re into whatever you’re doing online and the next day you may do a little less,” she said.
She also recommended paying attention to the type of content children are interacting with: “Are you playing a violent game or doing something creative and prosocial?”
What parents think
Parents echoed the need to pay attention to context and not demonize all media use.
“We don’t parent out of fear,” said Samantha Matalone Cook, a mom of a 7-, 11- and 13-year-old in Berkeley, California, of her parenting philosophy.
Her children have their own electronic devices and don’t have specific time limits on their use.
“What I find is that the more you limit it, the more it becomes a wedge between you,” she said. “You’re shaming them for something they love.”
She said that parents can fear that kids will be on their electronic devices all the time, but that doesn’t happen in reality.
Cook has a master’s degree in education, home schools her children, and is the founder and executive director of Curiosity Hacked, which provides children with learning opportunities in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math).
The organization believes that children learn best when feeling enthusiastic and self-motivated about a subject.
She said that she sees the benefits of technology and that adults can be “very hypocritical” about the use of technology.
“Everybody learns differently and has different values,” she said.
She explained that sometimes when her kids are playing an electronic game they will spend more time on it, and other times that won’t be the case.
However, the family does have some technology use ground rules.
Among them are that it can’t interfere with their daily lives, classes, appointments, or spending time with each other.
Cook points out to her children if they have been using an electronic device for a long time and haven’t eaten and taken care of their body.
She recommends that parents model healthy technology use and take an interest in their children’s technology use.
She said that one of her kid’s interest in a particular video game lead to learning about the Revolutionary War.
Wanting to be social on Minecraft led to another’s growing interest in writing and reading.
“It’s delightful to watch kids do things they never thought possible, such as 3D printing, robotics, and integrating technology with things like sewing and art,” she said.
San Francisco parent and college academic counselor Anastasia Fiandaca is also involved with her children’s media use but takes a more cautious approach.
While her children, now aged 7 and 10, were under the age of 5 they viewed no media.
“I didn’t think they needed to learn to use technology,” she said. “I think they were better served playing with physical toys, reading books, interacting with us, and going outside.”
At the same time, she remembers growing up watching certain movies with her family. As her kids have gotten older, she has watched videos about nature and science and occasional movies with them, allowed them to earn video game time by doing extra academic work, and showed them social media posts of interest.
They sometimes also use the devices to do research and writing for school or send text messages to their friends about scheduling playdates.
Part of what influenced her views on her kids’ media use, especially when they were younger, was the negative content of television programming, particularly regarding women, the LGBT community, and people of color. She will now push the pause button when she sees racist attitudes reflected in content they are watching so they can discuss it.
While she plans to continue to limit her kids’ media use in some ways, she’s interested in learning more about its positive aspects.