Dr. Corinne Masur
Parents ask us all the time about screen time, both for themselves and their young children. Here’s a sample of frequently asked questions:
- Is it okay to watch TV or Netflix while nursing a new infant?
- Is it okay to have the news on while my kids are playing nearby?
- What about when the kids go to their grandparents and the grandparents have the TV on ALL the time?
- Is it okay for toddlers to watch something on the cell phone to occupy them while we’re out to dinner?
- How much YouTube or video game playing is okay for a latency aged child or an adolescent?
These are difficult questions. In our society, gaming, Youtube, Netflix, etc. are ubiquitous. Everyone is watching something all of the time, it seems. The nursing mother is sometimes bored while nursing. She looks at her infant’s gaze and feels satisfied at being able to provide her infant with what he/she needs, but she’s used to more stimulation. She’d like to watch a little something or check her phone now and then while nursing. And the mother of a toddler would like a few minutes to talk on the phone or check her email or Instagram. The mother or father of a latency aged child has a hard time saying no every single time the child asks if he or she can watch something, whether on the iPad or the cell phone or the computer. What’s the harm?
A recent article in the New York Times said, “Exposure to TV and movie carnage is like exposure to secondhand smoke, research suggests.” The article went on to say, “The Surgeon General, The American Academy of Pediatrics, The National Institutes of Health and multiple professional organizations including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association all consider media violence exposure an actual risk factor for actual violence.”
So perhaps the answer is: What kind of video is being watched? What kind of game is being played? And for how long? And, most importantly, at what age?
Is it okay for a toddler to watch a small amount of a non-violent show or to play a learning game on a tablet? Is is okay for a 7-year-old to watch an hour or two of a non-violent movie or play a non-violent video game for a couple hours a day?
This leads to more complicated questions: If we know that violence on screen isn’t good for kids, what about watching or playing something non-violent? How much is okay? How much is too much? How much deprives a child of other useful activities? What’s the effect of screen time on social skill development and the development of the imagination?
These questions are up for grabs at the moment.
You know it’ll be hard to say no to your child if she or he asks to watch or play something on screen. And you know you’ll have a fight on your hands – is it worth it? As a parent, can you commit to monitoring what kind of show your child is watching or what kind of game they are playing? And can you say enough is enough after an hour or two? Can you make rules about when to watch or play? These are the questions parents need to ask themselves.
Perhaps a few guidelines would be helpful. After all, we write this blog because there’s so MUCH information available that it’s hard to know how to sort it all out. From my point of view as a child psychologist, here are the guidelines I would suggest:
While you’re nursing or feeding your infant, avoid looking at a screen yourself. Sing, think, slow down, look in your child’s eyes. These days this is hard, because it’s less stimulating than what we’re used to. But this is valuable time for you and your baby to make contact and to establish a strong bond between you.
Establish what I call “dedicated time” to play with your infant or toddler everyday. During these dedicated times, don’t look at your phone. Period.
During family meal times, make a rule: No devices at the table. Period. And this goes for parents too.
Under age 1: No screen time at all, and try not to let your baby see you use the phone. This is hard. You’ll find that you do not want to do this. But if your baby sees you use the phone, he/she will want to hold it, play with it and, when he or she can, use it. You can count on this. The phone will seem like an important object to your baby because YOU give it importance by paying attention to it. Show your baby that he/she is the MOST important person to you in the moment and pay attention to him/her.
Ages 1-2: Limit use of screens to no more than half an hour a day for learning videos and music. And again, try not to use the phone yourself in front of your baby, at meals, while playing, etc. This is time to devote to interacting with each other.
Ages 2-3: Limit use of screens to no more than one hour a day for very simple shows, videos, and learning games. You want your toddler to engage in human interaction and imaginative thought and play for the majority of every singe day.
Ages 3-5: Limit the use of screens to 1-2 hours per day. There’s no harm in letting your 4 year old watch a 30 minute show if you need to do the dishes or laundry or take a shower. But make sure you know what the show is about and that you like its content.
Start setting limits about when screen time is allowed early and often. If you want your mornings to go smoothly, tell your child that there will be no screen time before school. Even though you think it might be a nice reward for your child getting dressed, it is notoriously hard for children to STOP watching once they have started. You’ll have a fight on your hands and grumpy child if you allow SOME screen time and then have to tell your child to stop in order to leave the house to get to pre-school or daycare on time. Trust me.
Bedtime needs similar structure. It’s often best to limit screen time to daytime hours. Screen time within an hour of bed time can prove over stimulating to kids of all ages (as well as to adults!).
Ages 5-7: You may have a fight on your hands no matter what. They’re now at an age where they’ll know about their friends’ screen habits, and they’ll want to do what their friends are doing. But remember, this is your child and you get to make the rules. No more than 2 hours a day on screen is a good limit at this age. And you can start letting your child EARN his or her screen time. Chores, reading, homework can all earn screen time if you choose to do it this way – but again, limit content and limit WHEN your child can use the screen.
Ages 7-9: 2 -3 hours a day is the maximum amount of time you want them on a screen, and possibly less. Again, let them earn screen time, limit what times of day they can use screens, and make sure homework is done before screen time.
Ages 9+: You have some difficult questions to answer. For example, at what age do you want your child to have a phone? Some 8 and 9 year olds have phones to call their parents if they need to be picked up or in the event of an emergency. Your child won’t like it, but at this age you may want to get them a flip phone if you get them a phone at all, so that you know it is ONLY being used for communication with you.
And as for other screen time, well, screens will be used for homework. I advise having your child do homework in a public area of the house and monitoring what they’re doing on the screen. Children of this age will often do activities other than homework on their tablets or computers when you are not looking– so look!
At this age it’s important to investigate security provisions on the computer. Do you want to limit what can be accessed on the computer or tablet? This is a good idea and one worth researching how to do.
But even at ages 9, 10, 11, 12…, it’s still a good idea to limit screen time to 3 hours a day. More than that interferes in getting enough physical activity and social interaction.
Tune in for further posts on the issues of when to give your child a phone with internet access, how much screen time is optimal for teens, and the effects of social media on pre-teen and teen development.