I was recently in a restaurant and looked over at a sweet family having dinner with their toddler. I thought to myself “my kids were never that angelic when we ate out”: they would be squawking, throwing food and trying to wriggle out of the restraints like mini-Houdinis. Then I noticed the toddler was watching a cartoon on a cell phone. Oh boy, I thought parenting has become so much easier! This incident got me thinking, in this age of screens of all sizes and 24-7 media, how much screen time is OK for our children?

What’s the big deal about screen-time?

Studies show that excessive screen-time can cause behavioral, learning and physical health problems including ADD, sleep disturbance, eating disorders and obesity. And then of course their are the dangers of inappropriate content, illicit or risky behaviors with peers or strangers. Think of time watching a screen as being lost time to other more important activities: being physically active (with the exception of Pokemon Go of course), reading, playing, hobbies, socializing, being creative and even being bored.

Guidelines from The American Academy of Pediatrics

For under 2’s the AAP recommend avoiding screen-time altogether. A baby’s brain is developing fast and is easily overstimulated: they learn best from interaction with other people. For older children they recommend that parents monitor:

  • Location of viewing: establish screen-free zones (such as bedroom),

  • Their child’s time on screens: one to two hours per day,

  • Appropriateness and quality of viewing choices,

  • Advertising exposure,

  • Your own media diet.

Practical Parenting Tips

In an ideal world all parents would follow this research-based advice, however in reality this may challenging. Older kids are consuming media on their phone or at a friend’s house and peer pressure can make it hard to be strict. As with much advice for parents it comes down to your personal choice. Here are some tips from a veteran parent who has made plenty of mistakes:

  • Start with some ground-rules when your child is young and be consistent: it’s so much easier than breaking several years of bad habits.

  • When your child is young avoid having TV or radio constantly on in the background. It’s hard for little ones to process multiple sources of sound and they do not need to be constantly entertained.

  • Be explicit with your screen-rules: explain why you have them and why they may differ from those for their friends.

  • Family meals may be rare, so ensure that they are precious: no intrusions from outside.

  • Consider charging phones and laptops outside of the bedroom at night: for all family members.

  • Encourage your child them discuss what they are watching, especially if they are worried or upset by something they have seen. Modelling this for your child can be helpful, as they may assume that what they are experiencing is normal.

  • As children hit the teenage years shared interests with you and them may dwindle, so making a special treat of watching a favorite show together can be a great way to stay connected.