Parents are scrambling, trying to find the right balance for screen-based media — phones, tablets, computers — in their children's lives and learning. There are plusses and minuses to this technology, which vary by age of the child, the viewing situation and the subject matter being viewed.

It's new territory and parents have an obligation to intentionally consider and actively control the role of media in their family's lives. A thoughtful approach is necessary to prevent the many well-documented downsides of media use by children and adolescents, as well as to maximize the potential positives.

Draw up a blueprint for family media use. This helps avoid daily conflict over limit-setting.

Three recent publications in the journal, Pediatrics, address these issues and offer some guidance for parents, whose own media distractions can make them less-than-attentive caregivers.

To help parents navigate the digital landscape, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has just published two sets of revised guidelines for digital use by children and families. They address media use by infants, toddlers and preschoolers in one document, and school-aged children and adolescents in a second.

There are some common principles. At every age and stage, parents need to be actively involved in their children's and adolescents' media use, modeling active choices and setting limits. This applies to both the quality and content of media and the amount of time spent in front of screens of all types.

Spending too much time relating to a screen interferes with children's communication skills, social and emotional development, physical and emotional health, and even their sleep. Parents need to educate themselves about possible signs of problems in their children and teens. If questions, or concerns arise, your pediatrician may also be able to help.

Even Babies Need A Media Plan

For parents of young children, from infancy through 5 years old, the AAP guidelines, Media and Young Minds, are about helping kids learn early that media time is special and limited, and they should be choosy about what they watch.

It is a good idea to draw up a blueprint for family media use. This helps avoid daily conflict over limit-setting. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a webpage where parents can develop a family media plan.

“Families should proactively think about their children’s media use, and talk with children about it, because too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk or sleep,” said Jenny Radesky, lead author of the policy statement for infants, toddlers and pre-school children. “What’s most important is that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor.’ That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn.”

There's Plenty to Love, Too
Media can provide valuable social and family experiences. For example, video chats can draw extended families together and give parents a way to say goodnight if they are traveling.

The AAP stresses the importance of using media together for projects, exploring new ideas or watching carefully chosen movies as a family. They do not recommend letting young children watch media alone, or use it as a soothing or babysitting technique.

For Parents of Babies and Preschoolers

For young children, the AAP recommends the following:

  • Avoid digital media use (except video chatting) in children younger than 24 months.

  • If digital media is introduced to children between 18 and 24 months, choose high-quality programming and use the media with your child. Don't let children use electronic devices alone. 

  • Do not feel pressured to introduce technology early.

  • For children ages 2 to 5, limit screen use to one hour a day of high-quality programming. Watch with your child and help them understand what they are seeing. 

  • Avoid fast-paced programs and apps with lots of distracting content or violence. 

  • Turn off TVs and other devices when not in use.

  • Avoid using media as the only way to calm your child. This could lead to problems with limit setting and ability to self-sooth and regulate emotions.

  • Test apps before your child uses them, and play together. 

  • Keep bedrooms, mealtimes and parent-child playtimes screen free.

  • Set a rule: No screen time an hour before bed. 

  • Use resources such as Common Sense Media, PBS Kids and Sesame Workshop to find quality products. 

  • Consult the American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Use Plan. 

  • For School-Aged Children

    The allure and disruption of media use become even stronger when children start going to school and begin to do homework. A recent presentation at the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the impact of the use of digital devices on homework completion and found that the likelihood of homework completion was clearly related to media use — the more the media use, the less homework done.

    It's About Homework
    Pediatricians from Brown University School of Public Health reviewed data on over 64,000 children, ages 6-17, analyzing their media use and homework habits. They looked at non-homework-related use of TV, computers, video games, tablets and smartphones and found that 36% used media for 2 to 4 hours per day, 17% reported 4 to 6 hours per day and 17% reported greater than 6 hours per day. Only 31% of the participants used digital media less than two hours daily — and those were likely younger children with less homework to do.

    The more the media use, the less homework done.

    Compared to those with less than two hours of media exposure per day, children and teens who spent 4 to 6 hours on digital media were about half as likely to always or usually finish their homework. This increased to a 63% less likely of always or usually finishing homework when the children spent six or more hours on media use per day.

    Even more importantly, the study showed that media use negatively impacts other important childhood behaviors such as caring about school, completing tasks, wanting to learn new things. It also made it harder for school-aged children and teens to face challenges calmly.

    It's Also About Self Control
    Setting and monitoring limits on older children can present different challenges for families since older children will often have to be online for school assignments and need to learn to control their own use of media.

    The AAP guidelines for school aged children and teens include:

  • Address what type of and how much media are used and what media behaviors are appropriate for each child or teenager, and for parents. Place consistent limits on the number of hours per day of media use, as well as types of media used.

  • Make sure that children and adolescents get the recommended amount of daily physical activity (1 hour) and adequate sleep (8 to 12 hours, depending on age).

  • Discourage children from sleeping with devices in their bedrooms, including TVs, computers and smartphones. Avoid exposure to devices or screens for 1 hour before bedtime, so it is easier for kids to get to sleep.

  • Discourage entertainment media while doing homework.

  • Designate media-free times together (such as during family dinner) and media-free locations in homes.

  • Make sure other caregivers, such as babysitters or grandparents, know the media limits, so they are enforced consistently.

  • Spend time selecting and viewing media with your child.

  • Have an ongoing conversation with children about online behaviors, citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline, avoiding cyberbullying and sexting, being wary of online solicitation, and avoiding communications that can compromise personal privacy and safety.

  • Actively develop a network of trusted adults who can engage with children through social media and to whom children can turn when they encounter challenges.
  • The main goal is safe and appropriate media use by our children of all ages. The digital era is here to stay and we must all find ways to maximize its benefits and minimize its risks.

    It takes determination on the part of parents, teachers and mentors to maintain a high level of awareness of the role that media is playing in children's lives. It also requires that parents actively engage with problems as they come up, aware that the stakes are high. Yes, it's challenging. The AAP guidelines for younger and school-age children should help.