Screen Time Guidelines for Families

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By Christine Rushford, MS LMHC, Coastal Counseling

There is no way around it—screens are here to stay. Technology will only continue to evolve as parents desperately try to keep up with it all. Many parents wonder, “How much is too much screen time?” “Should my toddler have a tablet?” Or lately, “Is my teenager addicted to video games?” There are more and more studies coming out to aide parents in determining what is age appropriate for children regarding media use.

Let’s start with babies under the age of 18 months. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is recommended that screen media be avoided at this developmental stage. At this age, a baby learns everything through communicating and interacting with those around him. If the parent or baby are watching TV or are on a smartphone, the complex communication where the child learns and develops, comes to a halt. Furthermore, a baby under 18 months has no ability to transfer what he is seeing on the screen to his world around him. Although he may track the screen and follow the bright colors, it is merely a distraction from the necessary learning that would occur if the baby interacted with the world around him.

Ages two to five years old can benefit from TV shows, but the quality of the programming is imperative. Educational/interactive shows such as Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer have some educational benefits. It is recommended that parents watch shows with their children to maximize the learning potential of these programs. The recommended amount of watching is limited to one hour per day. Excessive amounts of screen time have been linked to speech delays, poorer performance on developmental screenings, inability to pay attention and lack of social skills. It might be helpful at this age to consider screen time in the same way you consider junk food in your home. A treat once in awhile will cause limited harm, but too often can get in the way of healthy habits and long-term health.

For ages six through adult, it is highly recommended to develop an individual media plan for each member of the family. I often tell the parents in my office to use common sense when it comes to what technology rules to implement in their home. Each family has its own unique set of values and morals and, therefore, the screen time needs and abilities will also be unique to that family. As always, I encourage the caregivers of the family to come together and agree on all screen time policies and then present these agreed upon rules to the children as a united front. I also can’t stress enough that children will follow their parents’ lead. It is so important to model healthy screen time limits for children.

Many parents tell me that their children appear “addicted” to their phones and video games. In 2018 the World Health Organization (WHO) included “Gaming Disorder” to its 11th revision of the International Classification of Disease (ICD-11). When parents express concern over their children’s habits, they have reason to be concerned. Children, including teenagers, lack the self-control to individually limit their own screen time. It is up to parents to set and model the family guidelines. If left to their own devices (pun intended), many children will lose valuable hours of sleep, face to face interactions with family and peers and physical movement to screen time. If gaming begins to take precedence over all other activities in a child’s life or if there is impairment in the areas of social, educational and/or occupational functioning, a child might be diagnosed with a gaming disorder.

Some common tips that appear to limit the negative effects of screen time include following the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, having “screen-free” times throughout the day (dinner time, car rides, etc.), creating a “docking station” for all smart phones after a certain hour, limiting and monitoring social media use, putting computers and gaming systems in a family space in the home rather than children’s bedrooms and routinely discussing online safety and responsibility with kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics also offers an online Family Media Plan tool kit to assist parents in developing individual media plans for family members. You can find that tool kit at www.HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan. Keeping up with technology can be overwhelming for parents, but there are many resources out there to help navigate this technological world. Screen time can be enjoyable as a form of entertainment and a way to connect with others, but as with all things enjoyable, moderation is the key to success.

Destin Life would like to congratulate Christine for becoming a new grandmother in June! Magnolia Jane was born to Emilee and Chase Dickson of Hattiesburg, Miss., on June 21.