Toddler screen time With so many learning and social interactions now conducted virtually instead of in-person, more and more parents are asking themselves — and their child’s pediatrician — this question: How much screen time is too much for my kids?

The answer is more nuanced and complex than you might imagine. According to Naline Lai, MD, FAAP, and Pamela Harrington, MD, pediatricians at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Primary Care, Central Bucks in Doylestown, PA, as the roles screens play in our society continue to evolve — we now use them for everything from face-to-face conversations with loved ones to reading books — the guidelines for screen time are evolving, too.

“The main principle is that screens should not replace parental and human interaction with a child,” says Dr. Lai. She cautions that excessive screen time is associated with a number of health issues, including depression and obesity, and can also have a negative impact on a child’s sleep. Screen time can also adversely affect brain development in young children. “Children need personal interactions with their caregivers to develop cognitive, language, motor, social and emotional skills,” she says.

Screen time guidelines

So, what is the right amount of screen time? It depends on many things, including your child’s age. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following guidelines:

If your child is under 2: Screen time should be very limited, and children should only use screens when adults are also actively participating in the screen-related activity with them. (For example, a video chat with the entire family.)

If your child is between 2 and 5: Screen time should be limited to no more than one hour per day of high-quality content (i.e., programs or activities that are interactive, nonviolent, educational and positive). All programming should be viewed or played with a parent.

If your child is over 5: You should develop an individualized screen limit plan for your child. The following tips can help:

  • Create device-free times and zones, such as: in the bedroom, one hour prior to bed, while walking across the street, while doing homework, in the car or during family meals.
  • Monitor your child’s screen-related activities. Carefully select and schedule what your child sees to ensure they are not spending a lot of time simply watching the screen. Set controls on your child’s devices and social media accounts, and “friend” your child on social media. Also, be sure to discuss the fact that any post can be permanent online.
  • Provide clear rules about social media and device use so your child knows what to expect. Have open discussions about what is and is not safe. Let your child know about the consequences they will face if they break the rules.
  • Use the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Plan tool to create a customized plan for your family. 

Does your child have a “device addiction”?

An addiction to devices uses the same neural pathways as addictions to things like gambling and drugs. Devices and social media allow us to get immediate “likes,” which increases our brain’s dopamine levels, which in turn motivates us to repeat the behavior.

If your child uses screen time as an emotional crutch, or if their screen use disrupts basic activities such as eating meals as a family, this is a sign that your child is over-using their device.

Other signs of device addiction include being preoccupied with device use, worrying about device battery life and access to power, and frequent arguments about device use.

Healthy device use starts with you

Devices can be powerful teaching and learning tools for children if they are actively engaged with the device — that is, if they are using the device in order to develop their skills or capabilities. Devices can help older kids with social interaction, allow them to collaborate on projects, give them access to valuable support networks, and help encourage physical activity through the use of fitness apps and trackers.

“If you want to make sure your child is using their devices in a healthy way, start by being aware of how and when you use your own devices,” says Dr. Harrington.

“Children mimic what their parents do. Demonstrate to your child the importance of setting limits on screen time by limiting your own device use. If your child sees you using your device during times when the family is supposed to be together, they will want to use their devices during these times, too,” she says.

“The decision to give your child a device should not be made based on your child’s age alone,” says Dr. Lai. “Your child’s maturity and development matter more than anything else: They need to be able to follow rules and use the device properly and responsibly. You can help by providing guidelines, setting limits on screen time, and modeling responsible device use so your child can follow your lead.”

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