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Screen time and kids: Focus on quality and limit quantity, say the experts

Anxious and stressed-out parents, particularly those who are teleworking, are turning to TV and video games to help keep their kids busy and out of their hair.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Anxious and stressed-out parents, particularly those who are teleworking, are turning to TV and video games to help keep their kids busy and out of their hair.

Now that the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered schools and day cares and forced families to practice social distancing, many parents are struggling even more than usual with managing their children’s screen time.

Screens — computers, tablets and smartphones — are being used for home schooling activities, of course, as well as for helping children stay connected with their family and friends. Anxious and stressed-out parents, particularly those who are teleworking, are also turning to TV and video games to help keep their kids busy and out of their hair.

Knowing that they’re letting their kids spend more time in front of screens has added to some parents’ anxiety, particularly since groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have been telling them for years to limit screen use because of its potentially negative effects on children’s health and language development. The AAP’s recommendations are strictest for younger children: No screen exposure before age 18 months, and no more than an hour for children aged 1 to 5 years.

Quality makes a difference

A new study, published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, may help ease at least some of those parental concerns. It may also offer parents guidance for how to best use screen time during this pandemic.

The study — a review of 42 previous studies involving almost 19,000 families with children under age 12 — found, perhaps not surprisingly, that quality makes a difference when it comes to screen time.

Yes, the more time kids spend in front of a television or computer, the stronger the likelihood that their language skills will be delayed, the study reports. And leaving the television running in the background while the family goes about its daily activities can also be harmful to language development.

But exposure to high-quality screen time — educational programming, for example or programming that is watched alongside parents — appears to mitigate at least some of that harm.

In fact, high-quality screen time was found to have a positive association with children’s language skills, although that finding appears to be truer for older children than for younger ones.

The bottom line: Limit your child’s screen time as much as possible, particularly if your child is under the age of 6. But if your child must spend extra time in front of a screen, try to make sure the content is educational.

“These results are consistent with current pediatric guidelines that suggest no screen exposure prior to age 18 months and, for those older than 18 months, to limit the duration of screen exposure,” the authors of the review conclude.

“Moreover, caregivers should ensure that programing is high quality and, when possible, to co-view with the child,” they add.

AAP’s pandemic recommendations

The AAP recognizes that because of the coronavirus pandemic parents face “an unprecedented challenge in the coming weeks as their children move schooling into their homes while parents juggle work and childcare responsibilities, and emotional and potential financial stresses.” They also acknowledge that children across the United States are going to be spending an increasing amount of time in front of screens.

The organization has therefore issued the following list of tips to help parents keep media a positive experience for their children:

1. Make a plan. Talk with your kids about what your daily structure will be, how you will handle stress, and when you will take breaks from tele-work or schoolwork to relax and connect with each other.
2. Communicate with teachers about what educational online and offline activities your children can do. Schools districts may be able to help connect low-income families to free Wi-Fi or devices.
3. For preschoolers, good options include PBS Kids, which is sending out a daily newsletter with show and activity ideas.
4. Use social media for good! Check in with neighbors, friends and loved ones. If schools are closed, find out if there are ways to help students who need meals or internet access for at-home learning.
5. Use media for social connection: Social distancing can be isolating. If kids are missing their school friends or other family, try video chats or social media to stay in touch.
6. Be selective about what your children watch. Use trusted sources to find positive content, such as Common Sense Media, which has been compiling lots of ideas for families hunkering down right now.
7. Use media together. This is a great opportunity to monitor what your older children are seeing online and follow what your children are learning. Even watching a family movie together can help everyone relax while you appreciate the storytelling and meaning that movies can bring.
8. Parents working from home may need to adjust expectations during this time. But it’s also a chance to show kids a part of their world. Encouraging imaginative “work” play may be a way to apply “take your child to work day” without ever leaving home!
9. Podcasts and audiobooks are great ways to keep children’s minds engaged while parents get things done.
10. Find offline activities that help family relax and communicate. Take walks outside, play board games, read together, have family dance parties. Know which activities spark your children’s interest (kicking the ball around? baking?) and make time for them.
11. Create the space for family members to talk about their worries.
12. Parents — notice your own technology use. When you’re getting too sucked into news or social media feeds and it’s stressing you out, children can notice. Take a break to protect your own mental health too.
13. Limits are still important. As the timeline of social distancing is uncertain, try to stick to routines. Make sure technology use does not take the place of sleep, physical activity, reading, reflective downtime, or family connection.
14. Make a plan about how much time kids can play video games online with friends, and where their devices will charge at night. Challenge children to practice “tech self-control” and turn off the TV, tablet, or video game themselves – rather than parents reminding them.
15. Consider what offline activities are enjoyable for your family.  Help other families by sharing those ideas.

FMI: You’ll find the JAMA Pediatrics study on that journal’s website, although the full paper is behind a paywall.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Sara Lance on 06/24/2020 - 05:40 pm.

    Life can be tough for a parent, especially a single parent. Regardless of your family dynamic, it is likely that screen time comes into play when you need a few minutes to get something done, or just some time to recalibrate. What if there was a way to achieve this without encouraging more screen time? You’ll be happy to know there is, and it’s called independent Chess. Introducing chess to our children is a very good idea. It’s important to know, it might sound obvious, but isn’t so, that you can do it from a very young age and you don’t have to explain it with proper rules. Why? This is the obvious part – because there is no fun in it. But with books like this, by Richard James, or like the one writen by Makism Aksanov ( and by many, many more chess entthusiasts, it’s very easy to teach with all the fun and play, and make with this game a very rich, fantasy world of our kids 🙂

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