It may not be surprising to hear children and adolescents are spending an increasing amount of time on electronics and watching TV. As technology continues to advance and becomes more and more popular, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised its guidelines on screen time for children and adolescents.
The changes in the AAP’s guidelines come after some studies found a connection between heavy media use and health risks, such as obesity. For example, heavy media use during a child’s preschool years was “associated with small, but significant increases” in body mass index (BMI) and sets the stage for weight gain later in childhood,” according to the AAP’s statement. A person’s BMI is a measurement tool to help determine if someone is overweight or obese.
Screen time for infants to teenagers
For children younger than 18-months, the AAP recommends avoiding digital media use, such as computers, phones and tablets because they need to develop various skills through real world interactions.
“Children younger than 2 years (of age) need hands-on exploration and social interaction to develop cognitive, language, motor and social-emotional skills,” according to the AAP statement. “Because of their immature symbolic, memory, and attentional skills, infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional media as they do from interactions with caregivers, and they have difficulty transferring that knowledge to their 3-dimensional experience.”
The AAP recommends screen time be limited to one hour per day for children 2 to 5 years old. The group recommends that parents try to avoid fast-paced or violent programs and apps with distracting content.
Krystal Revai, a medical director in Medical Policies and Operations at Aetna, emphasized the importance of interacting with your child during any media use. Whether it’s doing the laundry, making dinner or taking an important call, most parents will at some point give their child a device in order to get something done, according to Revai. She emphasized, however, this should be the exception and not the rule.
“It’s important to not leave them alone during this time, but rather interact with them — ask them questions and explain to them what they’re seeing,” Revai said.
The AAP also recommends against using technology as a method of calming a child. While in some situations it is helpful (such as during airplane flights or medical procedures), using technology as a “soothing strategy” can lead to problems with limit setting or affect emotional development, according to the statement.
For teenagers, the AAP recommends families limit the use of media devices to prevent distractions. Parents should encourage teenagers to get an hour of physical activity each day, as well as an adequate amount of sleep, and may wish to take away devices an hour before bedtime to avoid exposure.
The benefits and risks of media use
The AAP also found social media to be beneficial as a tool to access support networks, and as an opportunity to be exposed to new ideas and information. For families separated by location, social media gives them the ability to remain connected. For patients with ongoing illnesses, conditions or disabilities, social media gave them an outlet to talk with others dealing with the same situation.
But the AAP also cautioned there are risks involved with media use. According to the AAP’s statement on media use among adolescents, the odds of being overweight were almost five times greater for adolescents who watch more than five hours of TV per day compared with those who watch zero to two hours.
And there are also possible safety risks associated with the increasing popularity in various social media websites. The AAP advises parents to be cognizant of cyberbullying, sexting and online solicitation, and encourages families to have ongoing discussions about digital safety.
What you can do
The AAP provides families a tool to help create a “Family Media Use Plan,” which can help you describe how different technology is being used in your home, and define limits for your family. The tool, Revai said, is a good starting place for families that may not know how to create a plan.
Most importantly, parents need to follow their own rules. If you establish a media free hour, it applies to parents, as well as children, Revai added.
“You need to establish ground rules based on your family’s own principles. This can be ‘no eating in front of the TV’ or ‘no media at the dinner table.’ You also have to establish reasons and parameters for using devices for school work or anything else.”