What You Should Know about the Latest Screen Time Guidelines for Kids


Oct 28, 2016


Weary parents the world over sighed a collective sigh of relief last week, as the global media widely reported the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has relaxed its strict guidelines on screen time for kids.

But don’t mistake it for a validation. The fact that a lot of media outlets are reporting it in a ‘we knew it; the kids will be all right’ tone is misleading. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ updated screen time guidelines, which just released this month, are ultimately not that different from before: Screen time for children should still be as little as possible.

(These new screen time rules deserve some global scrutiny, because they have global implications. The AAP is one of the world’s leading expert bodies on child health, and its recommendations are cited by doctors and reviewed by parents globally, including in India, for standards of care.)

The biggest changes in the AAP’s new screen time guidelines are that they are now more specific and more practical. This has been enabled by a new body of research into tech’s potential benefits for kids. And while the AAP acknowledges these more positive findings, it’s pretty clear they don’t outweigh the well-documented negative effects of screen time: “In summary, multiple developmental and health concerns continue to exist for young children using all forms of digital media to excess.”

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Updates to Age 2 and Younger Screen Time Guidelines

“For children younger than 2 years, evidence for benefits of media is still limited, adult interaction with the child during media use is crucial, and there continues to be evidence of harm from excessive digital media use, as described later in this statement.”

Occasional, brief video chats with relatives are OK. While the AAP still strongly discourages any kind of screen time at this age, a handful of new studies suggest there is some benefit to interacting with relatives like this.

Basically, if you keep it short and not too frequent, and you continue interacting with your child (“That’s Nani. She loves you very much. Can you say something for Nani? Or blow a spit bubble for Nani, that works, too.”) your kid is unlikely to be affected by the serious negatives like cognitive, language and social/emotional delays, and may even pick up a word or two.

Parents can now introduce specific types of programming under specific circumstances starting at 18 months – but the AAP still doesn’t really think you should. Starting at 18 months, the AAP’s screen time guidelines say, it’s not the worst thing in the world to introduce screen time to your child. But reading between the lines, it basically says any screen time at this age is for your benefit, not the child’s: “Do not feel pressured to introduce technology early; interfaces are so intuitive that children will figure them out quickly once they start using them at home or in school.”

If you do allow your child screen time at this age, it might be more work to make sure it’s healthy engagement than it’s worth: The AAP advises that at this age, the only way kids benefit from screen time is if parents watch it with them and reteach any principles afterward, offline. Left to their own devices, there are only negative effects.

Updates to Ages 2 to 5 Screen Time Guidelines

“Well-designed television programs, such as Sesame Street, can improve cognitive, literacy, and social outcomes for children 3 to 5 years of age …. Unfortunately, most apps parents find under the ‘educational’ category in app stores have no such evidence of efficacy, target only rote academic skills, are not based on established curricula, and use little or no input from developmental specialists or educators.”

1 hour or less of screen time a day is now OK – but only if specific criteria are met. For the ages 2 to 5, the AAP has relaxed its recommendations to 1 hour or less of screen time for children a day. This is probably the biggest shift from AAP’s earlier stance, which held kids should ideally avoid screen time altogether. It’s an acknowledgement that an hour of screen time a day won’t be the worst thing for your kid and could possibly be useful – providing it’s of a very specific kind that may not be worth the effort it takes to achieve.

How your child experiences screen time affects whether it’s healthy or unhealthy. If you and your child are engaging with the media together, and interacting and conversing with each other (this includes reading e-books – together) then that hour of screen time each day is OK.

What your child is doing with his or her screen time is also critical. An educational book, program or game that is slow-paced, with no distracting or violent content is the only kind of healthy digital media for kids.

The only specific brands the AAP recommends are apps from the Sesame Workshop and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and it’s pretty damning of any others; the policy statement goes out of its way to explain that the only other apps that have been proven to have any benefit for pre-schoolers are laboratory-developed and not available commercially. In other words, don’t be fooled by the label ‘educational.’

Why you’re allowing your child screen time also influences its effects. The AAP advises parents to avoid giving a child media as a way to calm him or her, as it could lead to “problems with limit setting or the inability of children to develop their own emotion regulation.”

The AAP’s screen time guidelines also recommend keeping children’s bedtimes (and bedrooms, full stop), mealtimes and parent-child playtimes media-free (including for the parent; put the ringer on silent). Basically, when parents typically find screen time most helpful, it’s not allowed.

Even if the how, what and why boxes are checked, digital media still isn’t that educational. No matter what the marketing says, the AAP stresses that “higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation, and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play, as well as responsive parent–child interactions.”

Ultimately, the AAP’s stance hasn’t validated or allowed parents as much leeway as most media reports suggest. If we’re honest, the screen time we allow our children doesn’t often fall under the AAP’s fairly explicit explanation of screen time that is healthy and affords potential benefits. And the AAP is pretty clear that unless screen time is within these parameters, it can have major negative developmental implications.

We may be living in an exponentially digital world, and it may feel nigh impossible to manage our kids’ exposure to it, the AAP says, but that doesn’t make most screen time good for them.



Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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