I’m not that old. I grew up in what I thought were the not-so-distant 1980s and 90s. But as I was reading the new recommendations for children’s media use that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released two weeks ago, I couldn’t help but reflect on how different my childhood was from our current students’. When I think about what children and parents have to manage now regarding media, my childhood memories practically look like they should be played in black & white while set to an old-timey music soundtrack.
This isn’t a blog post about “having to walk to school uphill both ways” though, nor is it one proclaiming “kids these days” as spoiled or entitled. Society has simply changed so much in the last 20-30 years. Take a look at this infographic on teen and tween media usage:
Wait, there’s more! According to a recent report by the AAP, children in 1970 began to regularly watch TV at 4-years old. Today, the report finds children beginning to interact with digital media at 4-months old. In the year 2013, 75% of 0- to 8-year-olds had access to a mobile device. Approximately 75% of teenagers own a smartphone, with 50% reporting that they feel “addicted” to their phones. This statistic is unbelievable but the report states that teenagers between 14 and 17 years old send a median of 100 texts a day. We children of the pre-2000s can’t recognize this type of childhood. It’s not just single device usage either. Children are often “media multitasking.” They are watching TV and texting with friends. They are listening to music while watching a movie.
When we look at these numbers, my guess is that more parents nod their heads in agreement than shake them in disbelief. Maybe some do both. At Assets, we occasionally get parents asking us how much screen time is too much. We often hear, typically in an exasperated tone, comments like, “He can’t sit still and do half an hour of homework but he can play Madden 16 with his friends for five straight hours….I don’t even see them take food or bathroom breaks.” “She sleeps with her iPhone.” “Do you have other kids at the school who want to play Minecraft during dinner?” “Wait, the school is giving my child an iPad? What if he refuses to get off it. Can I take it away?” Screen time seems to be a Goldilocks dilemma for many parents, searching for the amount of time that is “just right.”
Before we go any further, let me stop and be clear that I don’t think media use is inherently a bad thing. In fact, it can provide children with many benefits, including exposure to new ideas, knowledge, social interaction, support networks, and fun. Unfortunately, there are risks involved with inappropriate or excessive media use. Research suggests that unhealthy media use can impact obesity, the duration and quality of sleep, and interfere with children’s social and intellectual development. Unsupervised media use can expose children to inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsafe content and compromised privacy. So again, we get back to what’s an appropriate media diet?
When reviewing recommendations, one of the big takeaways for me on how we help our children manage their media diet is that we need to reflect on our own media use. The technological shift in society that we’re talking about has also impacted adults. Our kids watch us. Very young children often model us. All children learn from us. Sometimes we check our email too much or too late. Sometimes we glance at our phones at dinner to check a sports score, our Facebook feed, stock prices, or for breaking news. I’ve been “politely redirected” by my wife (rightfully so) more than once for trying to sneak a peek at a Cavs, Indians, Browns, or Ohio State score while out in public. According to Pew Research, 94% of smartphone owners carry their phone with them frequently and 82% report that they never or rarely turn their phones off. The average video game player is not a 12-year old boy in the basement, it’s a 35 years old adult. In fact, 73% of all video game players are 18 years old or over. Our media consumption may differ from children but many adults are just as tethered to their email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube, Netflix, TV, and Pandora as their kids. If we are serious about providing our children with a healthy media diet, we are going to need to include ourselves, and our habits, in the conversation.
As I mentioned at the top, the AAP released new media recommendations this week. This was welcomed by many who felt the AAP’s old recommendation of no more than 2 hours of screen time per day, for children of any age, was both outdated and unrealistic. The original 2-hour recommendation was made before the proliferation of mobile and personal devices. As one AAP article stated, the position needed updating because we are living in “a world where ‘screen time’ is simply becoming ‘time.’”
Before we get to recommendations, I’m going to stop again and say that every family is different, with different needs. There is no parent-shaming here. I’m confident that there is no parent who can adhere to these recommendations 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. Take peace with knowing that person doesn’t exist. So, with that in mind, let’s look at the AAP’s advice.
If you want to read the full recommendations, you can click on the infant, toddler and preschool report or the school-aged children and adolescence one. Below are highlights from the reports that I found interesting or helpful:
- Children younger than 18 months. Avoid digital media use (except video-chatting). Using Skype or FaceTime to speak with a parent traveling or grandma on the Mainland is ok.
- Children 18 to 24 months of age. If you want to introduce digital media, choose high-quality programming and use media together with your child. Common Sense Media, PBS Kids, and Sesame Workshop have good resources to help families choose content for their children. Avoid having children choose and use media alone.
- Children 2 to 5 years of age. Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programming, coview with your children, help children understand what they are seeing, and help them apply what they learn to the world around them.
- Avoid fast-paced programs (young children do not understand them as well), apps with lots of distracting content, and any violent content.
- Turn off televisions and other devices when not in use.
- Avoid using media as the only way to calm your child. Although there are intermittent times (eg, medical procedures, airplane flights) when media is useful as a soothing strategy, there is concern that using media as a strategy to calm could lead to problems with limit setting or the inability of children to develop their own emotion regulation.
- Place consistent limits on hours per day of media use as well as types of media used.
- Promote that children and adolescents get the recommended amount of daily physical activity (1 hour) and adequate sleep (8–12 hours, depending on age).
- Discourage entertainment media while doing homework.
- Have ongoing communication with children about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline, avoiding cyberbullying and sexting, being wary of online solicitation, and avoiding communications that can compromise personal privacy and safety (I wrote about this last year).
- Recommend that children not sleep with devices in their bedrooms, including TVs, computers, and smartphones. Avoid exposure to devices or screens for 1 hour before bedtime.
- Designate media-free times together (eg, family dinner) and media-free locations (eg, bedrooms) in homes. Parents can set a “do not disturb” option on their phones during these times. Promote activities that are likely to facilitate development and health, including positive parenting activities, such as reading, teaching, talking, and playing together.
- Monitor children’s media content and what apps are used or downloaded. Test apps before the child uses them, play together, and ask the child what he or she thinks about the app.
- Keep bedrooms, mealtimes, and parent–child playtimes screen free for children and parents. Parents can set a “do not disturb” option on their phones during these times.
In short, all media isn’t created equal. As kids get older, there isn’t a set amount of media time that is good or bad; rather, we should focus on the quality of the content, its level of engagement, and the opportunity for interaction and learning. Both parents and teachers need to be media mentors who not only pay attention to their own habits, but teach children how to use technology in a healthy and ethical way. The other big takeaway is the need to find balance between family experiences that require technology and those that don’t. One helpful tool the AAP developed for this is the Family Media Use Plan. I like it because it’s customizable. It provides you a framework but it allows you to add categories and differentiate for different family members. It allows you to share that there might be things that you would allow your 13-year old to do that you wouldn’t for your 6-year.
In closing, know that while much of this blog focused on parents, we at the school are partners with you on this journey. In addition to our classroom teachers, many of you know Jon Pennington, our Technology Integration Specialist. Jon works with our teachers and students to support students’ development in digital citizenship. Jon’s support is one reason why Assets is a Common Sense certified school.
About the Author
Ryan Masa is the K-8 Principal at Assets School in Honolulu, Hawaii