How much screen time is OK for your child?

Experts from the American Association of Pediatrics released new guidelines for children's screen time. They say consistency is key – and offer parents support in implementing the guidelines.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Michael Nathanson plays on an iPad with his son, Beckett, in the living room of their home in Somerville, Mass. The American Academy of Pediatrics has released updated guidelines for digital media use by young children.

How much screen time is too much for kids? It depends, experts say – but keep it consistent, and don't lose focus on "creative, unplugged playtime."

This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics met in San Francisco to discuss important children’s health issues. Several of the issues revolved around the complexity of raising children in an increasingly digital world where children largely develop friendships through social media but are also susceptible to cyberbullying.

The new guidelines, which build on the idea of the digital world as "just another environment" kids experience, are more flexible than they had been in the past. Hard limits don't necessarily make sense, say the authors, since every child is different. Previously, the academy had set a limit of two hours per day for children over the age of 2.

"It doesn't make sense to make a blanket statement [of two hours] of screen time anymore," Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, lead author of the "Children and Adolescents and Digital Media Technical Report," told CNN. "For some children, two hours may be too much."

For many young children, the noise and lights of screens may be overstimulating. Parents should keep an eye on their own technology use, too, the researchers say: If children get the impression that they come second behind technology, it may cause behavioral problems.

Parents also play an important role in mediating between their child and a screen. The AAP says it's fine for children older than 18 months to have an hour of screen time each day, as long as parents are right there to help the kids understand what they are seeing.

Research shows that school-age children and teenagers can benefit from screen time and media use. The internet offers them access to a wealth of information. Children can also engage in creative, structured activities, like coding or building their own websites. Meanwhile, homework has increasingly shifted online, meaning teenagers, in particular, spend hours every day at screens. With that in mind, "screen time" now refers to entertainment activities only.

But, with around half of teenagers admitting they’re addicted to technology, how can parents find the right balance? Consistency is key, according to the AAP. Ideally, children and teenagers ages 5-18 should be getting an hour of exercise daily, along with plenty of sleep (up to 12 hours, ideally). 

Media-free times, like meals or family events, should be clearly defined. The AAP also suggests that keeping technology out of children’s bedrooms can help create boundaries and get them to bed on time.

The rules should be enforced even when Mom and Dad aren’t around, the AAP advises. Parents should make sure that babysitters and caretakers know the drill.

In addition, online security is vital. Growing trends like "sexting" and cyberbullying affect between 7 and 15 percent of children and youth, a National Academies report found. Parents can take the lead by acting as a "media mentor," actively discussing safety issues with kids and helping them to use media "as a tool to create, connect, and learn," says Jenny Radesky in the AAP's press release.

Technology can help. Apps like My Mobile Watchdog allow adults to monitor their child's online activity, and virtual private networks can create "tech-free zones" at home and in school by preventing devices in a certain area from texting or using some apps.

The AAP has a "Healthy Children" site that allows parents to construct a family media plan that works for them. The site encourages parents to consider what they want the purpose of media to be and design their plan accordingly.

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