Screen Time, Holiday Time, Family Time: Tips For Parents On Tech Toys This Holiday Season

Dr. Dimitri Christakis says not all screen time is bad for children, but it’s important to be familiar with the content and manage the time kids spend on screen toys.

The American Academy of Pediatrics announced it is revising recommended screen time guidelines for kids. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, offers parents advice on how to manage screen time and what to consider when shopping for children this holiday season.

Q: What should parents make of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) decision to revise screen time guidelines?
A: This is an acknowledgement that for kids growing up today, screen time is a constant part of their lives: At home, at school, when visiting friends, on the airplane, in cars. Digital products have permeated every part of kids’ days, so the revised guidelines ought to help families manage digital engagement.

The good news is that not all screen time is bad. But it’s important for parents to understand that kids are going through critical cognitive, social and emotional developmental phases, and screen time influences that development.

Q: How does screen time impact childhood development?
A: In the first two years of life, the brain triples in size in direct response to external stimulation. These experiences inform lifetime cognitive functions and behaviors. Simply put, every experience a child has in these early year plays a part in setting the stage for the rest of that child’s life. Screen time is an experience in and of itself, of course, but it displaces other important experiences like active play, reading, and interacting with people.

Interactive screen time activates a dopamine reward pathway by sending a signal from the back of the brain to the frontal cortex, which registers screen time as a reward. Essentially, what’s going on in the brain is a signal that says, “That was fun! I like that and want more of it.”

There’s nothing wrong with this pathway—it reinforces positive behaviors. It’s how your kid learns to say ‘please’, save money, or do well in school. When you praise them for these behaviors, the pathway is activated.

The problem is this repeated dopamine reward can lead to compulsivity, and with digital toys, that can mean hours and hours of screen time. We see kids who are addicted to technology, and that’s where we run into major developmental problems that can follow a kid for life. About 10 percent of adolescents have problematic Internet usage, and those behaviors start early.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis recommends quizzing kids on the content of educational screen toys to see if they are making an impact.

Q: So what does this mean for parents who want to buy tech toys or apps this holiday season? What should they be looking for and what should they avoid?
A: Parents need to think strategically about their digital content selections. Watching a movie together as a family is not the same as everyone sitting in the living room immersed in their own device. An educational app about wildlife is not the same as a violent video game. There’s a link between screen violence and real-world aggression, so these selections affect how kids interact with their world.

There is little data about the utility of educational apps and toys, but one way to know if it’s making a difference is to quiz your kid on the content. If it’s an alphabet app, is your kid getting better at reciting the ABCs after she plays with it? There are also relaxation apps and mindfulness apps that are probably better choices than the alternatives.

Q: How much screen time do you recommend?
A: Treat tech toys like any other toys. A two year old will play with any given toy about 20-30 minutes in a day, and that same rule could be applied to a tech toy.

Parents also need to ask, if the kids are on tech toys, what are they not doing? Screen time displaces other important activities—conversation, outdoor play, arts and crafts. I recommend parents dedicate two full hours of non-screen time every day.

Parents should be conscious of when they turn to tech toys. If your kid is having a meltdown on the airplane, some screen time might be a good idea. But if everyone in the family is inside on a device and the weather is great for outdoor play, that’s a good time to put away the tech toys.

Q: With families shopping and making plans this holiday season, what do you recommend?

Put thought into your screen time parameters and what tech toys you bring into the house. If your kids ask for particular toys, understand what they are before you buy them. Review your kids’ existing tech toys and apps. If you don’t like what you see, change it.

Set limits
Make rules and stick to them. Parents and families have rules about a lot of things—no shoes inside the house, no hats at the table, no dessert before dinner. Screen time should be no different.

Digital curfew
There should be no recreational screen time at least an hour before bed. The light from screens and the proximity to the face suppresses melatonin and interferes with sleep cycles. For older kids, that means no TVs, phones and tablets in the bedroom.

Think of what is being displaced
Story time, outdoor play, sports—these go by the wayside when kids’ lives are filled with technology. Build space for these critical developmental activities.

Be a good example
Kids look to their parents for how to behave. If you are connected to your device all the time, your kid will think that’s an acceptable behavior.

The most important takeaways are to develop rules about screen time and be intentional about making space for non-screen time activities every day.