How to Help Your Child Keep Screen Time in CheckWith so much going on this time of year—a new family schedule, carpooling, and all the extracurricular activities that start up—it can be tempting for busy parents to hand their children a device to keep them occupied for a moment (or several moments!). This is completely understandable, and for the most part it’s harmless. However, there are some rules of thumb that parents of young children should keep in mind when it comes to devices, screen time, and going online.

Set Time Limits
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time per day, and this includes iPads, phones, computers and the TV. Use your best judgment when deciding the exact amount of time your child can spend using screens—the younger they are, the less time is advisable. Children under two years old should not have any access to screens.

Some kids tend to get absorbed into screens and have a very hard time breaking away after their allowed time has elapsed. For these kids, I recommend that parents be strategic and allow access to screens when a natural break will occur within a desired amount of time. For example, your children could watch 30 minutes of TV or play one game before dinner, and then at dinnertime they must stop the show, which will be over anyway, or end the game.

Unplug for Mealtime Mindfulness
Speaking of dinnertime, I recommend that families adopt a “no screens allowed” policy during dinner, and that includes the grownups. Children benefit from screen-free zones throughout the day, and adults do too. It’s essential for children’s healthy growth and development to learn how to be present and fully engaged in what they’re doing in the moment—this is what “mindfulness” is all about. It’s also important for children to learn how to have interesting conversations and share information about their day with their families, and this can all be practiced during dinnertime. I also recommend extending the “no screens allowed” policy to bedrooms so young children develop healthy sleep habits at an early age.

Monitor Online Games and Apps
When it comes to going online to play games or use apps, parents should tightly monitor their children’s online behavior. Kids under 13 years old should not be on Facebook or Instagram, nor should they be snapchatting or getting onto social media sites like Tumblr. These online services can expose children to photos and concepts that are developmentally inappropriate, and we don’t want children to learn about important issues from strangers or other children—we want them to learn from parents and other trusted adults.

Children’s online behavior can be monitored in several ways. The first and most important is for parents to have an open line of communication with their children. Parents are encouraged to tell their kids exactly what they are and are not allowed to do online. They should be specific about what games and apps are acceptable, and explain that children must ask for permission to access additional sites. Parental monitoring software can be a very helpful tool for checking on children’s online behavior. There’s no need to be secretive about this—kids should know that their parents can see exactly which sites they’re visiting and how long they stay on them. This is calling “scaffolding,” which means providing explicit structure until children demonstrate that they are learning how to use the Internet responsibly. Parents can then increase kids’ independence as they get older and have a proven track record of safe online behavior.

Talk About Ads
Something for parents of young children to be aware of is the questionable advertising practices geared toward young children. Consumer advocacy groups recently complained to the Federal Trade Commission that YouTube Kids is mixing advertising and programming in a way that young children can’t distinguish. Research shows that children under the age of five cannot distinguish commercial content from programming, nor are they able to understand the persuasive intent of advertisers.

Fortunately, by the time kids are seven or eight years old, they can tell the difference. Parents of young children may find that their kids are requesting toys or treats that are advertised during programming or games, and they may want to block children’s access to sites that have a great deal of product promotion built in. Again, this is where an open dialogue comes in handy. Explain to your child the difference between a “want” and a “need,” and that advertisements are designed to sell us things we don’t need.

More tips and strategies for raising children in a digital age:

About Dr. Jamie Howard

Jamie M. Howard, PhD, is Child Mind Institute's Director of the Stress and Resilience Program; Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center.

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