Screen Time and Children

How much screen time is okay

for my child?

The answer to this question is quite layered. It’s also a very personal decision for families. But we have to admit that technology is here to stay and our kids will in one way or another encounter it. So, what we really need to ask ourselves is when and how often we will allow our own children to use it.

I hope families actually consider their media use and make meaningful decisions regarding it. It is a fact that how we use media effects not only our child’s development, but also a family’s development…for better or for worse. But, I’ll address how media use affects families in another post.

I’m always in favor of being balanced. While I love me some John Rocco and his philosophy of no screen time for children, I know some screen time isn’t evil (and that having a home free of screens is really hard). The issue with screen time and children lies not with technology itself, but with how it is used. For instance, how present is an adult during the screen time? Is the actual content of the show or app age appropriate for my child?

The funny thing is, these are things you consider before you buy puzzles or read to your child. Just sub the word “digital media” or “screen time” for “play” or “reading.” Some games or stories are just better suited for older kids. The same applies to digital media.

However, for some reason, the length of time spent engaging with digital media is discussed more than with unplugged time, especially for ages birth to 5 years old. This may stem from fears that veiwing screens means the viewer is a passive child who will become obese, be disinterested in human interaction, or not able to fully form his own thoughts and opinions.

Recommendations from organizations

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Recently, the APP switched a long standing recommendation of a maximum of 2 hour per day screen time down to only 1 hour of screen time. Not only did AAP recommend a smaller length of screen time, it also renewed its emphasis on adult interaction during the use of digital media.

Here is more information on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ New Recommendation for Children’s Media Use:

The National Association of Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. These organizations likewise have recommendations for caregivers with young children (birth to 8 years old) and the use of digital media. Their policy statement however was produced for early childhood teachers and their use of digital media with students. I have included their stance because as parents we are our child’s first teacher. So, we can all benefit from hearing their recommendations. From their position statement adopted January 2012, here is more information on their stance:

Both encourage the use of digital media together with children and in using high quality, content appropriate digital media. They remind us to be intentional with which shows, apps, or games we let our children engage in. Above all, they want to make sure children are actively using their minds while participating in these technologies.

My reactions to these recommendations. While I read these recommendations, I started to really consider our family’s media use. And, it dawned on me that it is not really aligned with these recommendations. Oops. To me, there is something about a book that just begs to be read together. But, for some reason, digital media doesn’t strike me that way. It seems so independent. I just figured that I don’t have to be present the entire time when my child is using a digital device because it captures his whole attention (uh, most of the time).

I don’t know about you, but from the families I’ve asked and with examining our own use, we tend to use digital media in its many formats as a way to occupy our children while we get things done. In other words, we let our children passively watch digital media instead of telling them to go run and play.

Digital Media Use Models

So, what do you do when your child’s use of screens are not within these recommendations? You could either hide, lie about the use or reexamine your child’s digital media use in a different way. Let’s focus on that last one. Here are two digital media models I have found to be very helpful and encouraging in my journey using digital media with my son.

Blogger Carisa Kluver of The Digital Media Diet and editor of Digital-Storytime.com. Please check out her article Parenting in the Digital Age. If you had any guilty feeling about the amount or type of digital media your child and/or family uses, then after examining it by using her model, you’ll probably not feel so bad. Kluver does a fantastic job of really discussing the reality of screen time in everyday families. She speaks about building a “healthy media diet,” one that a child uses to help guide his decisions later on when there isn’t an adult to say yes or no.

Her model is a triangle! Its three points are balance, quality, and engagement. Before using an app or watching a show, the child or wavering adult considers the use by considering how much time the day has been spent with screens, the quality of app or show, and how much engagement it will bring. When all three are positively met, then the screen time is a “go.” If there is only one amiss, say not a high quality app, then it will be a “maybe.” If two are absent, for example the child has been watching TV for four hours and the app is distracting, then it will be a “no.”

I like Kluver’s model because it reminds me that there are so many more variables at work when using technology. She helps to put the control back in hands of the adults and the child. After all, we are trying to cultivate a heathy habit of using technology and discussing our use does help.

Author Lisa Guernsey of Screen Time: How Electronic Media–From Baby Videos to Educational Software–Affects Your Young Child. Guernsey has another model that looks at your child’s digital media use in a different light. It’s also done in threes; in fact, it is called Three C’s. These Three C’s are content, context, and the child.

Content is the most important factor to consider. If it is meaningful and high-quality, then the amount of time asborbed in it should not be such an issue. Context matters: what’s your child’s day like? Likewise, the individual child will determine a lot: her age, her likes, what did she do all day, her temperment. When you take into account all of these C’s, then it should be clear about the affect of your child’s digital media use.

Digital Media & Us

Here I spill more beans on how and why we use digital media with our 3 1/2 year old son. I do so with the above recommendations in mind.

How do we use screens with our son? My husband and I don’t always act like guides during our son’s digital media use. We basically let him passively use it, although they are quality shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. We do not let our digital device run as background noise and we don’t force our son watch a show while we put up groceries or shower. If he wants to be with us doing those mundane things, then he can be. He mostly watches for a show for a bit and then we tell him to go play. And that works.

Why do we let him watch? Well, firstly, because he likes them. His school started showing his class of after-school kids shows when he was around 18 months old. We don’t force him to see these educational shows so he will learn to read or become a “well-rounded” child who will be able to code at age 5. Although he loves his shows, I don’t find the shows stimulating as an adult, which testifies that the shows he watches are age appropriate. (I am secretly wondering if that maybe why AAP recommends limiting screen time to only 1 hour a day. It is difficult as a 30-something year old adult to engage in the same Daniel Tiger episode for the fifth time that day!)

We let him watch, secondly, because we need a quick break. I know that passive engagement is against everyone’s recommendations. I try not to feel guilty for using his watching shows to quickly clean up or pay bills. We set limits to how often he watches the shows. He typically will ask for another episode when the first ends, but he starts to get antsy during the second show. If he gets ansty, we turn off the show. We try to avoid this by staggering his watching times with unstructured play time, reading, and outdoor time.

We don’t currently use apps in a regular way with Theo because the best ones cost money that we don’t have. We let Theo play the apps at the iPad station at our local library. We definitely sit and guide him when he uses this type of digital media.

Screen time is a difficult thing to manage, especially when you hear what is the best practice and you don’t do it. But, we try to follow Kluver’s model. We look for balance. We do not let the media dictate us, but we dictate the media. I think we are doing okay, even if it is not 100% aligned with some organizations’ recommendations. Besides, not every time my son looks at books or plays am I there reading aloud, playing, or being a guide with a puzzle. When he was much younger, I was. Now he can play by himself.

It may not be recommended to let him fly solo during his watching of Paw Patrol, but, for our family it works the way we do it. However, all that really matters to me is my family not being sucked away from each other because of screens. I don’t want Theo to grow up considering screen time as something more special than spending time with his family.


How do you use screen time with your child? Do you join in with them? Are these recommendations something that would be a struggle for you? If so, do you think you will try to adapt?

4 Comments

  1. I love the balance and info on this post. Looking forward to more articles. I love your name. I basically do it during his respiratory therapy times, and on road trips, and occasional Saturday morning breaks. I honestly feel like we do okay, but we can always do better :).

    1. Hi, Crystal! You know, I honestly never gave much thought into our use of screens with Theo…or that there can be benefits to using technology with your child until I started researching it. I’m glad I did! Those models really help to put into perspective the whole child. In the end, each child AND family is unique and has special needs.

  2. Hi! Thanks for reading. I researched my sources and they are pretty solid ones so I feel secure in the recommendations and the models. As for a conclusion, I really feel it is up to each family to try to tackle using screens WITH their children. It’s hard to avoid screens so by teaching your own children how to use them, helping to set up time limits and using age appropriate programming and apps, I feel screen time can be used properly. I don’t like using a ton of screen time, personally. But as someone recommending to others who have children 0-5 years old, based on my research, try to limit it to 2 hours a day but, as with all things, use moderation, intention and together. What do you think?

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