There are few things in this world that I love more than a nice, big bowl of chocolate ice cream. But as a semiresponsible adult, I have to admit there’s a reason we don’t feed our kids chocolate ice cream for breakfast every morning — the health risks simply outweigh how good it tastes. The more we learn about the human body, the more we realize how important it is to fuel our bodies with the right amount of the right things. Similarly, the more we learn about children’s media use, the clearer it becomes that in order to keep their minds healthy we need to help them get the right amount of the right things. To take the guesswork out of establishing the right media diet for our kids, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) today announced new policy recommendations about children’s media use.
One of the most common questions parents ask me is how much media content — and what media content — they should let their children consume. Today, I offer my endorsement of the new research-based AAP guidelines, which include:
- Children younger than 18 months should not use screen media except for video-chatting. These guidelines are different than previously established guidelines recommending that children under 24 months avoid all screen media.
- Children ages 18-24 months should only be exposed to high-quality, educational programming, such as content by Sesame Street and PBS KIDS. Media exposure for children this age should always be accompanied by an adult who can help them understand the content.
- Children ages 2 to 5 years should be limited to an hour of screen time involving high-quality programs. Parents should also co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to their own lives.
- Children ages 6 and older should have clear limits about both the amount of media time and the type of media content they are allowed to use.
- Families should establish “media-free” times and locations, such as during dinner, driving, and in children’s bedrooms.
- Regardless of children’s age, families should have regular conversations about online safety and etiquette.
In addition to the new media use guidelines, AAP experts launched a “Family Media Use Plan” tool at HealthyChildren.org to help parents establish a healthy media use diet that is appropriate to their family’s unique needs.
Parents’ Critical Role
There are two main takeaways from the new AAP policy. First, this is the loudest that the AAP has spoken about the critical role of parents in guiding kids’ media diets. While the influence of teachers, pediatricians, and other adults is important, parents are in the day-to-day trenches of their kids lives, and they (1) know their children better than anybody else and (2) have a greater influence on them than anybody else.
Second, research shows that the average American parent does not come close to parenting according to these guidelines. As a parent myself, after reading these guidelines I paused and considered how I’m doing. For parents who are already doing these things, I applaud you. We need more parents like you. For parents who are experiencing parenting guilt right now because your family has already developed media habits contrary to these recommendations, please don’t despair. Please don’t give up. Breaking children’s media habits is tough, to be sure. Here are a few things you can start doing now. Making small changes today can influence your children’s well-being tomorrow in big ways:
- For 5 or 10 minutes a day, make some time to read a book to your child — with the TV off. Research shows that reading together has all sorts of positive benefits for children.
- Pick a night, maybe Sunday night, and help your little one video chat with Grandma, Grandpa, or another distant relative or friend. There is much we can do to help our kids, even little kids, learn to use media in positive ways.
- During dinner, turn the TV off and put all devices in another room. This might have to start with just one night a week to avoid a total revolt in your house, but one night is a huge step in the right direction.
- For one 24-hour period, keep track of your own media use. One of the biggest predictors of children’s media use is parents’ media use. What you find may surprise you into making small course corrections.
- When your kids are using media, start participating with them. Joint parent-child media use can have an amazing influence on how much children learn from positive media content.
Today’s world is different than the world in which we were raised. Media is everywhere, and it’s not going away. This means that our parenting needs are different than our parents’. The new AAP guidelines reflect our changing world—parents’ role in managing the media diets of our children has never been greater. The whole reason those of us who conduct children and media research is to help parents make evidence-based decisions about the role of media in the lives of children. These new guidelines provide a solid basis for parents to help shape how media is used in the home.