Whether your kid is 3 and obsessed with Daniel Tiger videos or 15 and spending half her conscious hours on Snapchat, you are probably somewhat conflicted about how to think about their media habits.
How much time? What kind of media? What should our family's rules be?
When the American Academy of Pediatrics released its latest recommendations on these burning questions Friday, it also did something pretty cool: it launched an online tool that parents can use to create their own family media plan.
The interactive tool lets you set guidelines for each child, with suggested items based on the AAP's age-specific recommendations and space to add or substitute your own family's rules. At the end, you can print out a document that lays out your family's own media policy.
I went through the process for my 4-year-old daughter a few days ago. It took about five minutes to indicate the screen-free areas and times in our household, specify our device curfews and where they will recharge, how we will watch media with our daughter, what kind of media we'll avoid (unboxing videos) and answer other questions.
We've certainly had some of these rules in vague form floating around in our heads, but it helps to have something concrete to remind us that there are no screens allowed at the dining room table, in my daughter's bedroom, in the stroller or in the bathroom (No iPotty for us, thanks.)
Our plan also includes a list of things we can do more of by decreasing time spent with media, like coloring, going to the library and playing outside. It reminds us about digital safety rules, like reviewing privacy settings on sites our kid may use. And by making these the family's rules, it reminds my husband and me that we need to set a good example ourselves by putting our devices aside at the agreed-upon times and places. (I haven't had a chance to run it by my kid yet, but that's on my list for the weekend.)
It's not that a printout is going to automatically change behavior, says Jenny Radesky, a developmental pediatrician at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and lead author of the AAP's policy statement on media use for young children. But it helps parents lay out their values in advance rather than simply reacting to the latest app or platform.
The AAP's updated recommendations are more nuanced than in the past, when the group discouraged any digital media use for children under 2 and recommended limiting screen time to two hours or less for those older than that.
Those lines in the sand are "too simplistic," says Ari Brown, a pediatrician in private practice in Austin, Texas, and a former member of the AAP's Council on Communications and Media. (She wasn't involved in writing these latest guidelines.)
(NPR Ed lead education blogger Anya Kamenetz explains what we know about media use and learning in very young children here.)
In fact, the recommendations for elementary school-aged kids and teens don't set any specific time limit. The AAP says that's a decision that depends on the type of media being used and the child using them.
But they do say that children and teens' priority should be getting enough physical activity (one hour per day), and sleep (8-12 hours). They recommend that kids not sleep with devices in their room, and that they avoid exposure for one hour before bedtime, since that can disrupt sleep.
And they make it clear that parents have a huge role in their children' media use, even when they're teenagers. Parents should talk about online citizenship and safety, form a network of trusted adults their kids can engage with on social media, and take an active role in selecting and watching media with their children.
So-called "co-viewing" is crucial for younger children. "It should be like reading a book together," says Georgene Troseth, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. "You should be talking about what you're watching." As with books, the goal is to help children compare what they're watching to the real world. That's a valuable skill to work on, since "that's how adults use media: we use it to get information or to be entertained," she says.
Still, the AAP says that parents shouldn't feel pressured to buy apps or gadgets because they think kids will be left behind. (They're intuitive enough so that they'll pick them up quickly whenever they start.) "Your kid doesn't know how to do a Google search when they enter kindergarten," says Brown.
The bottom line: Your family's media policy should be informed by your own values and intuition as well as what the science says.
"I want parents to trust their gut," says Radesky. "If they're sitting with a child [using media] and the child is liking it and seeming to be learning something, that kind of a test is totally great." And if you decide you'd rather ditch all devices in your house, that's fine too. "We support that 100 percent," she says. "Your child is not missing out on anything."
Katherine Hobson is a freelance health and science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She's on Twitter: @katherinehobson.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
How much time should a child spend watching TV or videos or a phone? What about educational apps? Those are questions that the American Academy of Pediatrics has tried to answer today with its updated guidance on kids and screen time. The academy's old recommendations discouraged any digital media for children under 2 and suggested no more than two hours a day for kids a bit older than that. The new recommendations are more nuanced.
Katherine Hobson has written about this for NPR's health blog Shots. Welcome to the program.
KATHERINE HOBSON, BYLINE: Thanks. Good to be here.
SIEGEL: And what do pediatricians know about screens and children's development that they didn't know when they made recommendations in 1999?
HOBSON: Well, there's always new research coming out. And remember, it's very difficult to study these technologies because they come out so quickly and are replaced by something else. One, I think, highlight from these is that the ban on digital media or the discouragement of digital media in kids 2 and younger has been amended, and now they say that really kids who are younger than 18 months really should still not be using this stuff with one notable exception, and that's video chat.
There's no real evidence that Skyping or FaceTiming does anything particularly great or anything particularly bad. But because it's usually a quick thing and involves social interaction and usually involves adult supervision, you don't really need to worry that your kid's brain is rotting if they're waving hi to mom on her business trip at the end of the day, so that's OK.
Kids who are older than that, who are 18 to 24 months, they're still pretty cautious about digital media. They say that if parents want to introduce digital media, there's some very mixed evidence about whether they get a benefit.
But the key seems to be having, first of all, high-quality media, not just some random cartoon you find online. And the real key is having a parent there. With kids this young, you need to treat this like a book. You need to talk with them about it, relate it to the world. You shouldn't just park your 20-month-old in front of an iPad and leave them there for an hour and figure that they'll sort it out on their own.
SIEGEL: A lot of schoolwork nowadays requires kids to use computers. Do these recommendations take that into account?
HOBSON: They do. They're really talking here about things they're doing for fun outside of schoolwork. But it is interesting, they have kind of done away with this two-hour limit for older kids - 6 and up.
Parents do need to set a time limit and limits on the type of media, but that will really depend on the kid, what they're interested in and your own family values. They say that the priority should be getting enough sleep, getting enough exercise, doing your schoolwork, communicating offline with family and friends.
So they suggest, for example, that you don't have devices in your room, that you unplug them an hour before bed, that you don't use entertainment media while simultaneously doing homework and that you set aside some times and areas in the house where the whole family - and I think this is important - the whole family, including mom and dad, are not on screens.
SIEGEL: The academy has put online a tool for families to set media guidelines. I gather you tried it for your 4-year-old. How'd it work?
HOBSON: It's just come out, so I haven't had a chance to actually put it into practice, but what I found useful is a way to kind of codify some of the feelings and values that I've had floating around in my mind. For example, we are pretty much fine with her spending a limited amount of time watching "Barney" reruns on YouTube. We're not OK with other content, so that helps us kind of make lines about what we are and aren't comfortable with.
And we have come around in the last couple of months to being, you know, more strict, and this helped us kind of say exactly how we're going to be more strict - no screens on weekday mornings, limited amount of time that she can spend on a screen after day care, before dinner, using apps and things that we supervise. So those are the things that we're comfortable with, and I think that now we have them written down and can kind of - we're hoping to actually wave it in her face and say it's the rules. It'll be helpful for all of us.
SIEGEL: That's Katherine Hobson, a contributor to NPR's health blog Shots. Thanks for talking with us.
HOBSON: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.