By Julia Atkins, MD
Golden View Family Medicine
Children today are growing up surrounded by digital media, and it has become a challenge for parents and caregivers to know the best approach. There are of course both positive and negative effects of digital media on the health of children and teenagers, and it is not easy to balance these aspects with so much digital bombardment in their (and our) daily lives. Previous generations have been exposed to produced media such as TV and movies, but there is now a significant amount of interactive media as well, from social media like Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, etc. to video games that connect kids all over the world.
Kids 8 years and older spend an average of more than 2 hours in front of a screen each day, including streaming video like Netflix and social media, and this average only increases in older kids due to mobile devices giving them interactive media at their fingertips. Benefits include access to early learning, new ideas, health information, and social connections. But risks include negative effects on attention and sleep, increase in obesity and depression, and access to inappropriate content, cyberbullying, etc.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), has updated recommendations to help families manage digital exposure from birth through adolescence, including an interactive media use planning tool from HealthyChildren.org. Families can use this tool to individualize a media plan to balance screen time and other activities, set expectations for accessing content and giving out personal information, and teach “digital literacy.”
The AAP has the following recommendations:
- Avoid digital media use with children younger than 18 months, except for video-chatting using FaceTime, Skype or similar programs.
- For children 18 to 24 months, if you wish to introduce digital media, choose high-quality programming such as PBS Kids, Sesame Workshop, etc., and always watch with them to help them understand what they are seeing.
- For children 2 to 5 years old, limit screen time to 1 hour per day of high quality programs as above and watch with them so they understand what they are learning and can apply it to the world around them.
- For children 6 and older, place consistent limits on screen time, the types of media and content, and monitor to assure adequate sleep of 8 to12 hours, depending on age, physical activity of at least 1 hour daily, and other healthy habits. Common Sense Media is a great resource that provides independent reviews, age ratings, and other information about all types of media.
- Avoid using media as the only way to calm your child, or as a digital babysitter. These are occasionally useful strategies (during medical procedures, airplane flights), but this can make it tougher for children to learn to regulate their own emotions.
- Keep bedrooms, mealtimes, and parent-child playtimes screen free for children and parents.
- No screens one hour before bedtime, including TV, computers and smart phones.
- Discourage the use of entertainment media while doing homework.
- ongoing discussion with children about online behavior and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline, being aware of online solicitation, and avoiding communication that can compromise personal privacy.
Children today are growing up in a world of media immersion, so it is imperative that families develop personalized plans tailored to the needs of each family member. With this type of tool, we can ensure that children will benefit from essential components for healthy growth and development at every stage, including adequate nutrition and physical activity, good sleep hygiene, and positive social interactions. The role of parents in navigating the complicated media experience with their children and teens is crucial, and can create a lasting impact in helping them have a positive experience in this era of sophisticated digital media.