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The Great Screen Debate

Screen time for children remains a hot-button topic in our country. Ten years ago it was essentially a non-issue, yet today we find ourselves faced with a technological parenting dilemma. Our children are the first generation that have strong access to portable devices that are connected to the internet, thus providing them with potentially unlimited content. They can use so much of what’s available not just for entertainment, but for learning as well. Technology can provide us all with an enriching experience, but there is high potential to overuse or misuse it. This is an especially tricky time in our history; as technology is advancing at exponential rates, we are embarking through uncharted territory. What’s a parent to do? As with so many things, it’s all about balance. Consider the following and find the balance that is right for your family.

Age matters

Generally speaking, the younger the child, the less time they should spend in front of a screen. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 18 months avoid screens altogether with the exception of video-chatting. Children aged 18 months to five years should have very limited time exposed to screens, and that time should be spent viewing high-quality programming alongside a parent who can help explain and interpret what’s happening. For ages 6 and beyond, the Academy stresses the importance of ensuring that media use does not impede or take the place of critical developmental and health needs such as quality sleep, physical activity, and other important areas.

What about older kids? They still need guidance and boundaries. Thinking about our kids’ developmental and health needs might help guide our stance on screen time.

Content considerations

With an unlimited supply of information, it can be easy for children to stumble upon content that they’re not equipped to understand and which could potentially be harmful. Your first line of defense is to be actively engaged while your children are accessing screens. Filters are a good backup, but be wary of considering them fail-proof.

The very best way to make sure your child is accessing appropriate content is to sit beside them during device use. Consider this a time to teach your kids how to use the internet and devices responsibly while making sure they don’t accidentally stumble into something they’re not ready for. Many families keep devices public: computers face outward into a room and handhelds and laptops are not allowed in kids’ bedrooms. This allows parents constant access to view the content their children are engaged in.

Looking to utilize parental controls? There are many options out there. If you haven’t already seen, PCMag has a helpful chart detailing the features of what they consider the best options of the year. At just under $50, the highest recommended option is Qustodio which boasts such features as access scheduling, social media monitoring, and remote management. See the full list here:,2817,2346997,00.asp

Setting limits

Our children are constantly seeking out the edges of their boundaries. While we aim to give them as much choice as possible, it’s important to provide necessary structure to keep them safe and feeling secure. Setting limits on screen time is yet another area in which we need to do this.

As mentioned earlier in this post, consider your child’s developmental needs. Is there time built into their day to play outside/engage in physical activity, read, interact with others socially, and pursue independent interests like art, building, and games? Is your child getting enough sleep and following a regular bedtime schedule? If all of those needs are met and there’s still some time leftover in the day, decide how much time you feel comfortable letting your child utilize devices.

Another consideration: you may already know but many experts feel that we should all unplug at least an hour before bedtime, while some believe two hours is a safer bet. The reason? Blue light emitted from our devices confuses the body’s natural release of melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep. We can teach our children these scientific findings at an early age and instill good habits while they are young.

Aside from setting time limits, we can all stand to talk to our children about device usage, the pros and cons, and particularly about content. Encourage an open dialogue with older children so they understand you are there to help them navigate tough situations in the digital world. Teenagers who are beginning to use social media will need frequent check-ins and encouragement to make safe choices.

Examining our own use

One element of kids’ screen time we don’t always consider is how our own use serves as a model. Our phones are so good at serving so many different functions it can be hard to put them down at times. While deciding what is best for your child is a very personal decision, the following questions may be helpful to consider:

  • How often do you find yourself idly swiping or scrolling in front of your child?

  • In what ways might your devices enrich your life?

  • In what ways might your devices get in the way of real interactions?

  • Does your phone make you feel more connected or disconnected?

If you’re one of the many adults who suspect they might stand to decrease their own screen time, there are (believe it or not) fun apps to help you be more aware. There are apps that keep track of how many times per day you glance at your phone for updates. Using it for just a few days or a week can be eye opening! There are many other great apps that aim to help adults curb their obsessions with their phones if you’re looking to make a change.

We hope this post served as a helpful way to reflect on your screen time, your children’s, and how you can all make the best of these amazing resources we have today.

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