Setting Limits on Screen Time for Healthy Families

By Corinne Altham

I was sitting with a set of 24 sparkly iPad minis the other day. I was in my school library with the kids who wait every day for the late bus. A few of the kids eyed the iPads; I watched as the speech bubbles appeared above their heads: “I can has iPad?”
But the closer I looked, I also saw that most of the others were playing nicely with the toys the staff had put out for them. Kids were happily chatting over shape puzzles, crayons and paper. I knew the second I started handing out those screens, the kids would disengage from everyone around them and the room would fill with the beep boops of plugged-in children.

This opening paragraph might sound like me, a technology teacher, bucking everything I represent and dissing the very technology that defines my job. But I know better. Technology is not something I teach. It’s something I use to teach. I don’t put kids on Google Drive. I teach kids to write using Google Drive. I don’t budget for Tales2Go for my schools because I like the quiet that comes from 25 kids listening to audio books. I get kids listening to master storytellers for the giggles and the gasps that fill the room as they listen. Ok, for the record, the quiet is nice. But what’s even nicer are the reports I get telling me, for example, that one family listened to over 5,000 minutes of audio books in one month!

We have to leverage the power of technology to engage, entertain and inform our children without sacrificing the activities that device-time might be replacing. So how do families ensure that their kids aren’t over doing it with screens? A mixture of expert advice, common sense and consistency will do the trick. Seems like I shout out to Common Sense Media in every article I write, but they really are THAT good. They have parent guides, articles and materials to help families answer questions, teach lessons and set limits on screen time. Their advice on issues like cyber-bullying and technology addition are expert-based and very practical.

The American Association of Pediatrics, a collective of thousands of pediatricians across the country, sets recommendations for kids and screen time as well. Their recommendations might be surprising for parents who have employed the power of the screen for survival. For instance, the AAP says that babies should only engage in screen time if they are calling grandma. Video-chat. That’s it. But how many of us have seen an older baby handed a cell phone to occupy their little hands and eyes for a few minutes?

They go on to say that just before their second birthday, children can begin using digital media as long as an adult is actively engaged with the child and the content. At that age, kids need the social feedback of another human reinforcing social cues, reacting to their use of language and referencing objects in the real world during digital play.

The AAP recommends one hour of screen time for children ages two to five. After age five, the recommendation is to set limits, but to also include children in that process. The organization recently released the Family Media Plan Tool to help parents set guidelines and create a plan for their children’s media use. “[Too] much media in early childhood is associated with behavioral, developmental, sleep, and obesity outcomes...that we would like to prevent,” says Jenny S. Radesky MD, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan and part of the team that developed the tool.

The Family Media Plan Tool allows parents to map out a child’s day by inputting the hours children spend sleeping, eating, learning at school, etc. to make a educated decision about how much time can be spent consuming media.

The Family Media Plan Tool allows parents to map out a child’s day by inputting the hours children spend sleeping, eating, learning at school, etc. to make a educated decision about how much time can be spent consuming media.

In May many school districts celebrate The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s “Screen-free Week” by unplugging television sets and powering down all devices to find the joys of analog play. It’s a great idea: unplug to find the fun exploring the natural world and “friending” a real person. However, without creating a media plan for your family, you run the risk of plugging back in at the end of the week without any clear limits in place.

Look to the gurus for ideas on how to bring high-quality and carefully vetted media to your children and make a plan for healthy living. Common Sense Media, The American Association of Pediatrics and your child’s school are all great places to start. As with all things, carefully considered moderation is the key. In the meantime, I’ll be tying this carrot to the end of an iPad to get my son to clean his room.

Corinne Altham works as a technology integrator and librarian in South Portland. Over the past 18 years, she has taught in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, New Hampshire and now Maine. She lives in Gorham with her family and a very naughty rescue dog named Dixie. You can follow her musings about kids, technology and books on Twitter @mrsaltham.