Parents are scrambling, trying to find the right balance for screen-based media — phones, tablets, computers — in their children's lives and learning. There are plusses and minuses to this technology, which vary by age of the child, the viewing situation and the subject matter being viewed.
It's new territory and parents have an obligation to intentionally consider and actively control the role of media in their family's lives. A thoughtful approach is necessary to prevent the many well-documented downsides of media use by children and adolescents, as well as to maximize the potential positives.
Three recent publications in the journal, Pediatrics, address these issues and offer some guidance for parents, whose own media distractions can make them less-than-attentive caregivers.
Draw up a blueprint for family media use. This helps avoid daily conflict over limit-setting.
There are some common principles. At every age and stage, parents need to be actively involved in their children's and adolescents' media use, modeling active choices and setting limits. This applies to both the quality and content of media and the amount of time spent in front of screens of all types.
Spending too much time relating to a screen interferes with children's communication skills, social and emotional development, physical and emotional health, and even their sleep. Parents need to educate themselves about possible signs of problems in their children and teens. If questions, or concerns arise, your pediatrician may also be able to help.
For parents of young children, from infancy through 5 years old, the AAP guidelines, Media and Young Minds, are about helping kids learn early that media time is special and limited, and they should be choosy about what they watch.
“Families should proactively think about their children’s media use, and talk with children about it, because too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk or sleep,” said Jenny Radesky, lead author of the policy statement for infants, toddlers and pre-school children. “What’s most important is that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor.’ That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn.”
The AAP stresses the importance of using media together for projects, exploring new ideas or watching carefully chosen movies as a family. They do not recommend letting young children watch media alone, or use it as a soothing or babysitting technique.
The allure and disruption of media use become even stronger when children start going to school and begin to do homework. A recent presentation at the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the impact of the use of digital devices on homework completion and found that the likelihood of homework completion was clearly related to media use — the more the media use, the less homework done.
Compared to those with less than two hours of media exposure per day, children and teens who spent 4 to 6 hours on digital media were about half as likely to always or usually finish their homework. This increased to a 63% less likely of always or usually finishing homework when the children spent six or more hours on media use per day.
The more the media use, the less homework done.
Even more importantly, the study showed that media use negatively impacts other important childhood behaviors such as caring about school, completing tasks, wanting to learn new things. It also made it harder for school-aged children and teens to face challenges calmly.
The AAP guidelines for school aged children and teens include:
The main goal is safe and appropriate media use by our children of all ages. The digital era is here to stay and we must all find ways to maximize its benefits and minimize its risks.
It takes determination on the part of parents, teachers and mentors to maintain a high level of awareness of the role that media is playing in children's lives. It also requires that parents actively engage with problems as they come up, aware that the stakes are high. Yes, it's challenging. The AAP guidelines for younger and school-age children should help.