In our digital age, it’s not uncommon to see a toddler on an iPad at the airport or a teenager at the mall fixated on a smartphone. To help families establish healthy habits for media use, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released new media and screen time policies for children, from infants to teenagers.
The two new policies update previous recommendations and emphasize the importance of critical health behaviors such as sleep, cognitive development and physical activity. The policies recommend those daily priorities be addressed first, followed by mindful selection and engagement with media.
“One of the key takeaways is that we’re moving away from the previously used two hours of screen time per day guidance that some families might be familiar with,” said Dr. Megan Moreno, author of the policy for school-aged children and teenagers and a researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “There isn’t evidence to support a one-size fits all approach to media use. We’re encouraging families to review the new policies, which are based on current research, and create personalized media plans.”
Limit media for toddlers and young kids
Limiting and selecting appropriate media is important for toddlers and young children who are in critical social and cognitive developmental phases, according to Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. He authored the policy for children ages 18 months to 5 years old.
“We advise parents to avoid screen time for children younger than 18 months except for video chatting,” he said. “Infants and young children need laps more than apps.”
Christakis says evidence suggests that children younger than 18 months are not capable of absorbing much from media. The harm lies in the fact that time spent on media displaces activities like playtime and reading, which are crucial for healthy child development.
“That human interaction between parent and child during playing or reading remains the most important experience for healthy development,” Christakis said. “Every hour spent on a device comes at the expense of time spent interacting, and that can have detrimental long-term consequences.”
Key takeaways for children up to age 5:
- For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of media other than video-chatting. If parents want to introduce media for children ages 18 to 24 months, they should select high-quality interactive apps and use them with their children
- For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality media (including programs and apps). Ideally some of this will involve co-viewing and usage.
- Avoid fast-paced programs and apps. Slower-paced content and interaction drive learning.
- Avoid using media to calm or soothe a child.
“There are circumstances like a long car ride during which a parent might use a digital device to distract a child, but that should be the rare exception,” Christakis said. “Young children need to develop the capacity to self-soothe and regulate their emotions.”
Media for older children and teens: Mindful selection, curation and co-viewing content
The new policy for older children advises parents and children to work together on a personalized Family Media Use plan that sets guidelines that are individualized for each child. Working with this online tool, families can prioritize appropriate time each day for critical health behaviors such as sleep, physical activity and unplugged time. In the time remaining, parents and their children can collaborate on setting the quality and quantity of media use, and develop plans to co-view media together.
“We want to empower parents to work with their kids to develop the right balance of media time and content that prioritizes critical health behaviors and works for their family,” Moreno said.
One area the recommendations are very clear is discouraging the use of media during academic time, or media multitasking.
“If your child is supposed to be doing homework, they should not be flipping through their phone and multitasking,” Moreno said. “Studies have found that digital multitasking results in reduced learning retention.”
Key takeaways for older children and adolescents:
- For children ages 6 and older, place a priority on sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health. In the time remaining, develop guidelines around the quality and quantity of media and consistently reinforce these.
- Designate media-free times for parents and children such as dinnertime or when children are passengers in a car. Create media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
- Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.
Create boundaries and become a media role model.
For both younger children and through adolescence, the new policies reiterate the recommendation to avoid screen before bedtime and avoid allowing devices in bedrooms at night.
“We want parents to focus on the ‘dos’ and help kids develop healthy habits instead of making them feel guilty about media use,” Moreno said. “Media can be a way to bond with older children and teens, like following a streaming series together. Parents should recognize they are role models for appropriate media use. If your teen sees you using your devices responsibly, they’re more likely to do the same.”
For younger children, Christakis recommends a very limited and carefully selected exposure to media, and not before 18 months.
“Displacing conversations and interactions at that young age can have long-term consequences,” he said. “The exchanges between children and the adults and other people around them are essential to healthy development.”