Kids and screen time cause considerable parental angst these days—and for good reason. Research shows children spend on average seven hours a day glued to computer, tablet, smart phone, or television screens. This reality has created such a stir that last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its decade-old recommendation on childhood screen time.
Far from a radical revision, the guideline newly suggests a little well-chosen time is fine starting near eighteen months, when used interactively with a care taker. Below eighteen months no time remains best, apart from maybe video conversations with grandparents. From two to five, an hour daily maximum is recommended, and for older kids, two hours total time tops, no different than before.
Why is screen time such a uniquely charged and challenging topic? Guidelines of this type are tough to implement in the real world. Kids don’t want to hear that outside of homework too much time actually impacts healthy development. Yet since children lack mature executive function, cognitive skills required to manage life like a grown up, wise decision making around screens remains limited until they learn better. As strong a pull as children feel, healthy technology use relies on parents.
The Command Center of Life
Executive function is like the CEO of our lives. Anything regarding organization, planning, anticipating, focusing, and regulating behavior relies on executive function. Healthy development of executive function in early childhood has even been linked to life-long academic and social success.
In large part, kids depend on parents to manage life while waiting for executive function to mature. Executive function represents the path towards complex problem solving and goal setting, and the ability to defer short term gratification for long term gain. The unsettling reality is that executive function doesn’t fully mature until around the age of thirty. That’s one reason kids and teens make not-so-smart decisions when it comes to social media. In a nutshell, even an independent-seeming teenager almost certainly lacks the full capacity to make long-sighted choices.
Immature executive function is a large part of what makes kids act like, well, kids. Around screens, think of it this way: Most adults have fully developed executive function and a strong ability to manage attention, prioritize, plan, control impulses, and consider the future. They still struggle to keep phones and devices from becoming a distraction. What does that mean for the average child?
Because children lack the self-management capacities of a mature adult, they are particularly at risk when it comes to screens. For many, whatever feels best right now (I’m bored, where’s my iPad?) trumps health and well-being virtually every time. For teens immersed in their complex social world and drive for independence, volatile hormones and emotions create a perfect storm when joined with immature executive function and a smart phone. Sending naked selfies — hey, why not? The part of the brain responsible for reflection and foresight isn’t all grown up yet!
Putting Your Kids on a Media Diet
Like parents through the generations, our modern role is to love our kids, guide them, and teach them. Kids have always needed supervision, and there’s nothing unique about their fascination with technology. Parents before us managed a child’s behavior around driving, partying, curfews, and manners, and we now must keep track of technology, too. This means setting boundaries and giving them more independence as they earn it over time, not before.
Technology is a tool; it is not inherently good or bad. To keep it in a healthy place in our lives requires skillful use. Unlike passing trends that scared parents over the years, research shows poorly monitored screen time bluntly impacts kids for the worse. (Rock and roll was never shown to affect child development in any real way; it isn’t evil, as it turns out.) Well moderated activities may augment learning, but hundreds of studies show that when devices drive their own use, consequences follow. A few examples include:
Mindful Screen Management
Mindfulness means living life with more awareness and less reactive habit. For a parent, that means not trying for perfection but taking the time to monitor and readjust often. As children need our guidance around any other area of health, they need it with technology. If there’s one takeaway point around the entire body of technology research it is this: Strong parental involvement moderating screen time in and of itself correlates with academic, behavioral, and social success.
Staying involved means pushing back against mindless screen habits. The role screens play in life is driven by buckets of research and advertising dollars, an industry itching to make more and more money. Wherever technology helps, educates, or entertains in a balanced way, that’s perfect. When its use is driven by boredom, fear, or compulsion, mindfulness means pausing and redirecting our behavior.
Nothing much has changed through the years about how children develop or the role of parents. You wouldn’t let a child eat chocolate cake at every meal and you wouldn’t let them drive recklessly. By the same token, you can’t let them use screens without limits. Parenting in the digital age means the same thing as in the stone age: Children require affection, firm limit setting, and a mindful, aware, clear-sighted approach to guiding them, from stick and stones through television and smart phones.
Six Mindful Tech Guidelines
Some basic family guidelines for screen time include …
Mark Bertin is a developmental behavioral pediatrician and author of Mindful Parenting for ADHD and The Family ADHD Solution. He is an assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College, on the faculty of the Windward Teacher Training Institute, and on the editorial advisory board of Common Sense Media.