Digital media exposure for children of all ages should be limited, according to new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The AAP hosted a national conference in San Francisco, where an estimated 10,000 pediatricians met to discuss new children's health recommendations for 2017. Children's screen time, social media and cyberbullying were key points of interest.
‘Families should allocate "media-free times” together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms, which encourages in-person conversations that are very important for children's development.’
Those are some highlights from a new set of guidelines from the nation's leading group of pediatricians, published online by the journal Pediatrics
. They replace simpler longstanding recommendations that children under age 2 avoid all screens and that older children and teens use digital media for no more than an hour or two a day.
"It doesn't make sense to make a blanket statement [of two hours] of screen time anymore," said Dr. Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, lead author of the Children and Adolescents and Digital Media Technical Report
and assistant professor at UCLA. "For some children, two hours may be too much."
As long as children put down their devices long enough to sleep, exercise, eat, converse and otherwise engage in rich offline lives, a little bit of exposure to digital media is harmless.
For the new guidelines, the AAP identifies screen time as time spent using digital media for entertainment purposes. Other uses of media, such as online homework, don't count as screen time.
The academy recommends that for children 2 to 5 years of age, screen time should be limited to one hour per day. For kids ages 6 and older, parents can determine the restrictions for time spent using screen, as well as monitor the types of digital media their children use.
Babies are most vulnerable to screens. Infants aged 18 months and younger should not be exposed to any digital media, the academy says. Banning screen time for babies is hugely important for brain development and healthy parent-child connections.
Even if the baby isn't directly looking at the screen the baby can be overstimulated by the lights and sounds, which may cause distress and sleep problems. Perhaps most negatively, screen time causes a disconnect between parents and children.
"When a mother is breast-feeding, that is a crucial bonding time," said Chassiakos. The more face-to-face interaction children have with mothers and other adults, especially eye contact, the better for the brain development of infants, she explained.
If parents' attention is fixed on a TV or phone screen, babies are deprived of that attention; and if they are repeatedly neglected in favor of digital media, children may develop behavioral issues in the future, Chassaiakos said.
The AAP recommends that "parents prioritize creative, unplugged playtime for infants and toddlers," according to its press release. Children this age can be introduced to screens, but only for one hour a day. The type of media they are exposed to is critical: only high-quality programs, such as "Sesame Street" and other PBS shows should be viewed.
Children should be discouraged from watching advertisements, which tend to overstimulate them. For smaller children, discussing advertisements on TV is important, the academy reports. Many products, such as sugary cereals and fast-food restaurants, are marketed to children, and parents should help kids understand that these foods aren't healthy choices.
Toddler-aged kids have not developed the cognitive skills to understand advertisements or animations, she explained. Children at this age "can't interpret images like an older kid," meaning they cannot decipher between real-world people and fictional cartoons.
But the academy supports toddlers using face-to-face interactive media, such as Skype or Facetime. Including children in Skype video conversations with grandma, for example, can promote healthy development in kids, Chassiakos says. After the conversation ends, parents can supplement children's learning by repeating what grandma said on the screen.
Children aged 6 years and older should prioritize productive time over entertainment time.
For healthy kids, an average day includes "school, homework time, at least one hour of physical activity, social contact and sleep -- which is anywhere from eight to 12 hours for kids," said Chassiakos. "Whatever's left over can be screen time."
The academy agrees that digital media should never replace healthy activities, particularly sleep, social interaction and physical activity. In the press release, Dr. Jenny Radesky stated, "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."
Parents have to talk to kids, especially teens, about the risks of digital media, including cyberbullying, engaging in sexting, and being accessible to advertisements and online predators.
Parents are child's main role models, so it is important for moms and dads to have healthy digital media habits.
The academy recommends that families designate "media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms," according to the release.
With phones off the dinner table, families can have in-person conversations, which are very important for children's development. Parents benefit from media-free practices, too. Face-to-face interactions with family creates more intimate bonds, and tech-free bedrooms can promote better sleep.
Keeping tech devices out of bedrooms is also a good way to monitor kids' digital media activity. Chassiakos recommends having children use computers in the living room, for example, to ensure they finish any online homework assignments before using entertainment media.
"This doesn't mean you can't play video games with your kids," she said. "What's most important is that families have media-free time, and when digital media is used, it's used mainly for communication rather than entertainment."