I’ve talked quite a bit about how important I think it is for parent’s to monitor their child’s screen time, both for the amount of time they spend on screens and to insure that the content kids are watching is appropriate. Recently, I had a chance to chat with a pediatrician from CHOC (Children’s Hospital of Orange County) to hear an expert opinion on screen time and kids. Dr. Katherine Williamsonshared her expertise on the topic and answered several questions I had about how to best manage this aspect of our children’s lives.
Dr. Williamson pointed out that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has established guidelines for kids and screen time, and for your children under 18 months old they recommend NO screen time, with the exception of FaceTiming with a relative. “Baby Einstein does not hold water,” she said. “Studies show that kids can’t apply what they watch on a 2D screen into their 3D life. Experiences needs to be tactile and social at that age.”
For toddlers Dr. Williamson recommends no more than 30 minutes a day, but feels that WHEN is important. “Sitting in the doctor’s office waiting to get a shot would be a time for something distracting. But if it’s a moment at home that COULD be connective instead of zoning out, it’s best for kids to connect to real life.”
For kids over 5, the APA recommends “quality” screen time. “The content is important,” says Williamson. “There is a difference between passively watching a show vs. interactive texting or social media. Many games have been designed to pull kids in and keep them coming back, but there is no social or educational component.” She recommends an hour maximum on weekdays and no more than two hours on weekends, and keeping kids away from violent video games altogether.
Dr. Williamson believes that kids need to learn to self-regulate. As parents, we can help by explaining why we want limits around screen time, so that kids understand our motivation instead of seeing it as a punitive rule. She cites two main reasons for limited screen time:
1. Too much screen time has negative neurological effects – Research has shown that too much screen time can make kids more impulsive and worsen behavioral problems. Screen time cannot cause ADHD but in kids already susceptible to those traits, it can worsen it. Screen time affects sleep time (any electronic device used within an hour of bedtime affects sleep and chronic sleep deprivation is an issue in teens). It also has the potential for addiction.
2. Too much screen time becomes a distraction from better activities. Too often that time can be used for something more social or cognitively beneficial. What else could they be doing with their time? Screen time can steal time from social interaction, homework, physical activity, and all kinds of life-affirming experiences.
Heading into adolescents, Dr. Williamson recommends absolutely no electronics in the bedroom at night (and ideally, even during the day.) She suggests using a charging station in the main room. Studies show that if kids are doing homework on an electronic device in bed, the brain starts associating the bedroom with work. So having a separate space for computer work is ideal.
Kids also need help understanding the nuances of when screen time is appropriate and when it is not. She suggests establishing ground rules of where and when teens can look at their phone. Not at mealtimes. Not during a conversation. And of course, she emphasized the importance of adults modeling the kind of phone behavior they are expecting of their kids.
Dr. Williamson sees screen time as a reward rather than a right. “We think of candy and ice cream as a treat and we need to look at media the same way. If you don’t get homework done, you don’t get it. You have to work for it. It needs to be in balance.” At the same time, she acknowledges the many benefits that the internet can offer. Kids can find support groups for all kinds of issues, from LGBT concerns to sports groups. There learning opportunities. “Talk about the positives as well as the negatives. Meet them in the middle and encourage healthy boundaries,” she says.
Dr. Katherine Williamson is a board-certified pediatrician at CHOC Children’s in Orange, California. She attended medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, CA and did her residency at CHOC. To read more from Dr. Williamson on this topic, check out her article on screen time at the CHOC Children’s website. You can also subscribe to CHOC’s newsletter Kid’s Health to get regular tips and updates on best practice for kids and their health.
Hi, I’m Kristen. I’m a mom of four kids via birth and adoption and a writer living in Southern California. Read More.