Chances are you’re reading this on a screen right now, probably on your computer or perhaps on a mobile device. There might even be a child peering over your shoulder as you swipe or scroll.
Children today are growing up in an age of incredible media creation and consumption, meaning screen time is more pervasive than ever before. New research reports that three-quarters of teenagers own a smartphone and that most 2-year-olds use mobile devices on a daily basis. Screens entertain, educate and help us communicate.
But as a pediatrician, my peers and I have known for a long time that too much screen time has negative health consequences. There are many risks associated with screen time, such as developmental delays, poor sleep quality, and a higher incidence of childhood obesity. We’re also concerned about cyberbullying, sexting and privacy.
Traditional and new, screen-based media also offer benefits and opportunities. In addition to providing a platform for socializing and communication, it exposes children to new ideas and information, increases awareness of current events, offers opportunities for civic engagement and peer-to-peer collaboration and fosters social inclusion.
It wasn’t until recent years, when our collective state of constant connectivity became the status quo, that we needed additional information on the impacts, both positive and negative, of new screen technologies.
And so, more than a year ago the American Academy of Pediatrics set out to review existing literature on media use to identify evidence-based benefits, such as early learning, and risks, such as compromised privacy. This work resulted in new recommendations for parents about screen time for children.
The updates reflect AAP’s recognition that screens are unavoidable in today’s world. Previously, the AAP recommended that children under the age of 2 have no interaction with screens and that children older than 2 limit screen use to two hours or fewer.
The major changes acknowledge that video chatting for infants and toddlers is acceptable, that children between the ages of two and five should limit screen time to less than one hour each day and that children 6 and older should follow a custom media use plan.
The American Academy of Pediatrics Screen Time Limits and Recommendations:
Children under 18 to 24 months — Avoid digital media use altogether, with the exception of video chats. At this age, children learn from interaction and two-sided communication.
Children ages 2 to 5 — Limit media use to 1 hour or fewer per day of high-quality programming.
Children 6 and older — Establish screen-time limits. Shorter limits provide greater health benefits. Work with your family to set limits that prioritize health-promoting activities, such as physical activity, sleep, family meals, school and friends over media use.
While the new recommendation for children 6 and up doesn’t offer a specific screen time limit, the AAP continues to endorse Let’s Go!’s 5-2-1-0 message in which the 2 stands for limiting screen time to fewer than 2 hours per day. Families with school-age children and adolescents should use 2 hours or fewer as guideline, knowing that new research suggests that even 1.5 to 2 hours of screen time may be too much for some children.
The recommendation that we hope is most impactful asks families to create custom media-use plans. Healthy media use is not a one-size-fits-all approach, hence the difficulty in setting limits for an entire population. A custom media-use plan considers each child’s unique health, education and entertainment needs, sets limits and expectations and spurs conversation. The AAP offers an interactive family media-use plan to help parents create personalized family guidelines.
Thanks to the AAP’s yearlong effort, we have a better snapshot of today’s complicated digital landscape, complete with advice on how clinicians and parents can realize the benefits and manage the risks. It’s important to me that these new recommendations are clearly communicated to clinicians and ultimately parents, typically two of the most influential figures in the health of a child. Parents are busy, they need support and it’s my job to make their role easier, especially when it comes to teaching children healthy habits.
If you’re a parent, you know firsthand that the children in your life learn from watching you. You also know how hard it is to manage media use — it’s everywhere. Looking back, I was mostly concerned with limiting TV and video games for my two children, but the list is much much longer for today’s parents. My advice: Screens are here to stay, so set expectations early and enjoy the extra hours of screen-free time for years to come.
Dr. Tory Rogers is the director of Let’s Go!, a childhood obesity prevention program of The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center, and the associate director of the Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight at the American Academy of Pediatrics.