How much time should kids spend staring at screens?
Parents want a clear answer to this question. Unfortunately, no such thing exists. Case in point, in 2016 the American Academy of Pediatrics (A.A.P.) released its new screen time guidelines. Although their guidelines for young kids are very clear (for children ages 2-5, parents should limit screen time to one hour per day), for older kids their recommendations are murkier:
For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spend using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health. So, this begs the question: What do “consistent limits” look like?
In the child’s fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” Goldilocks goes for a stroll in the forest and stumbles upon a house where she finds three bowls of porridge. The first one is too hot. The second is too cold. But the third bowl is just right, so she eats it all up. It turns out this fable might apply perfectly to screen time.
Researchers believe that a similar “sweet spot” might exist for how much time kids spend using technology. Their research reveals that screen time may actually benefit well-being by providing opportunities for youth to develop social connections and skills. Well-being increases as screen time increases, up to a certain point. After that point, increased screen time is associated with decreased well-being.
They discovered that more than two hours per day of smartphone use (particularly on weekdays) is linked to lower levels of well-being. However extremely low or no daily screen time is linked to lower levels of well-being too. On the weekends, youth could engage in digital activities between 22 minutes and two hours and 13 minutes longer than weekdays before demonstrating negative effects.
Additionally, not all digital activities are created equal. Some activities actually help youth build a life and social skills, which in turn fosters well-being, and some digital activities may empower young people to meet their goals, be more active, and feel connected with others.
It’s important to note, however, that this study involved 15-year olds. If your kids are younger than this, it’s possible that their well-being will peak after less time online. Be sure to take the age of your children into consideration when deciding how much time online is “just right.” Also, remember that nearly every social media platform—like Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and more—requires users to be at least 13 years of age in order to open an account.
A Better Way to Manage Screen Time
Rather than counting screen time minutes, or worse, arguing with your children over this issue, there’s a better way. Like the good doctors of the A.A.P. recommend, having clear guidelines and setting limits helps them (and you) manage their powerful devices. Make this easy using this Parent/Child Technology Agreement.
But digital parenting doesn’t stop there. It’s also important to find out what your kids are doing online and why. The only reliable way to gather this information is to ask. Here are some talking points:
- Are your children connecting with friends via Snapchat, Fortnite, or by texting? If so, ask who they’re connecting with and encourage them to be wary of connecting with strangers or divulging too much personal information online.
- Discover what they enjoy about playing video games. Do they wear headsets that let them chat with other players? While girls commonly use social media to connect with peers, boys are more likely to maintain friendships via gameplay. Ask them about this. Maybe even ask them to show you how to play.
- Find out what your children are watching on YouTube. Are they exploring interests not met in school? Are they flexing their emerging filmmaking skills by making and posting their own videos? Watch what they’re watching and talk to them about it.
The point is, while our parents simply had to drive past the local street corner to find out who we were hanging out with and what we were up to, things aren’t quite so simple today. Digital parenting takes time, curiosity, and conversation. There are lots of activities that families can do together to build digital bridges, but there’s really no substitute for the one parenting strategy that has withstood the test of time: conversation.
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Diana Graber is a digital literacy educator and advocate and author of ‘Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology.’ She is the co-founder of Cyberwise, a leading online safety and digital literacy organization, and the founder and creator of Cyber Civics, a popular and innovative middle school digital citizenship and literacy program currently being taught in more than 40 U.S. states, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Africa.