Kids and Screen Time: The Rules Just Changed

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
AAP updated its guidelines

Before we get too far, I want to include a little disclaimer: These are guidelines.

As a parent, you can do your best to follow them knowing that they are easier to create than they are to carry out on a daily basis. When kids are sick, when you’re sick, when you’re trying to get your child to sit still for a doctor’s visit, or when you’re counting the minutes until your four-hour flight lands, well-chosen movies, games, and apps can be a lifesaver. Let’s not throw that baby out with the bathwater while trying to make sure screen time doesn’t get out of hand.

OK, now that we have that out of the way, here are the most important takeaway messages, as well as some helpful tips on using the well-researched advice of doctors in the real world — where you and I both live.

Infants (under 18 months)

The AAP recommends no screens. Basically, pretend your child is allergic to screens. Also, try not to use screens around your child (TV, smartphone, etc.). Here are my takeaways (coming from a mom who spent countless hours watching TV while feeding my babies because I didn’t have kids who ate quickly and efficiently, and I was doing all I could to not lose my mind):

* Do your very best not to make screens a part of your infant’s routine.

* Be aware of how much time and attention you are giving to screens while you are actively with your child. Maybe turn the TV off during meals, leave your phone on the counter when you’re playing, and press pause on introducing movies and television shows — even educational ones — for now.

* Take time to read to your child, talk to your child, and if you have older kids, let them step in and entertain your youngest because there’s no educational programming that can beat the show you or your other kids will put on for your baby!

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Toddlers (18 to 24 months)

The AAP says that a tiny bit of screen time is OK, but only supervised, high-quality educational activities or use of screens to connect/socialize (think Skype or FaceTime chats with Grandma).

* Make sure that the app or game you choose is truly educational, and set a timer for 10-15 minutes, because it’s all too easy to bask in the quiet of a child entertained by a screen.

* Make an effort to be with your toddler while they’re using screens, and make it a priority to keep screen time separate from the bedtime routine.

* Read books to your toddler. While the interactive components of eBooks are exciting and stimulating, research suggests that they can be distracting and get in the way of what your child comprehends.

Preschool years (ages 2-5)

The new AAP guidelines suggest no more than 1 hour per day of educational screen time, adding that parents should view with their children (just when you thought you had a guilt-free hour of peace).

* Make an effort to be near your child while they watch a show, but don’t feel pressured to be glued to their side. Check in from the other room to ask what they’re doing/seeing, and follow - up to answer any questions. You’ll probably get an earful about whatever the Paw Patrol pups were doing or the lessons taught by Elmo and friends on Sesame Street, but you’ll be engaging in conversation with your child about their learning, which is critical.

* Be sure to monitor what you’re watching or doing on screens in front of your child because they are old enough to see and hear everything without skipping a beat. Definitely turn off the news and avoid having the television on in the background.

* Begin to talk to your child about the impact of television ads and that they cannot always believe what they hear.

Kids (6 and up)

The AAP suggests that parents make sure kids do their schoolwork, socialize, get a least 1 hour of physical activity per day, and get ample rest (8-12 hours per night depending on age). What’s leftover can be used as screen time with careful selection of shows, games, apps, etc. Unfortunately, that’s a little less clear, and with such a big age range lumped into a small category, it’s hard to find the bottom line on how much time is too much time! Here’s what to focus on:

* Remember that access to screens is a privilege. Talk to your child about what they need to be responsible for in order to earn that privilege, and set limits. My stance is 2 or more hours of screen time per day usually comes at the expense of other important activities.

* As a parent, you have to make a judgment call on what “counts” as socialization. Do you feel that texting, Snapchat, and gaming will meet your child’s needs? If not, encourage face-to-face interaction with peers.

* Make sure that sleep is held sacred. To do this, have kids turn off or hand over screens an hour before bed, and don’t allow smartphones and tablets to reside on night tables (a habit that’s hard to break and can have long-term negative consequences because the light emitted makes it hard to fall asleep).

Finally, have ongoing, candid conversations about the aim of media advertisers so your child is not brainwashed by targeted messages. Teaching your child to be a thoughtful consumer of information provides an invaluable life skill, as well as a tool to handle the influence of advertisers in the present day.

Stephanie O’Leary, Psy.D. ( is a clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology, a mom of two, and author ofParenting in the Real World. She provides parents with a no-nonsense approach to navigating the daily grind while preparing their child for the challenges they’ll face in the real world.