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Set the right screen time rules for your kids

Mind

A TV, cell phone, computer and gaming console—most kids have quite the menu of screens to choose from these days. It makes you wonder—what does all of that time spent in front of screens do to their budding minds and bodies?  

The answer is surprisingly complex. Let’s talk about the effects of excessive screen time on kids and what parents can do to encourage healthy habits.   

Are kiddos over-connected?  

A little time here and there in front of a screen isn’t going to turn your child’s brain to mush. But research suggests that excessive or inappropriate use may influence a child’s physical and mental development in a number of negative ways.  

Some of these potential side effects vary according to a child’s developmental stage. For instance:  

Babies and toddlers. Their growing brains need human interactions and imaginative play to foster their problem solving, reasoning and motor skills. Screen time gets in the way of the one-on-one interactions little ones need to build those abilities.  

Older kids and teens. Too much screen time may put your school-aged kids at risk for:  

  • Obesity. Children move less and tend to mindlessly munch while watching TV, and they’re often exposed to ads featuring high-calorie treats.  
  • Sleep problems and poor grades. Screens in the bedroom keep kids up at night and interfere with their homework.  
  • Online dangers. Predators lurk on social media and online gaming sites.  
  • Social and mental health problems. Kids who spend too much time online may lose interest in real-world relationships or develop video gaming disorders.  

You need house rules for screens  

That’s a scary list to see—but before you go throw out your computer—remember that kids can make positive connections on social media and learn all sorts of amazing things online. 

The solution doesn’t have to be zero screen time until college. But it is important to set some healthy limits as a family. Here are some suggestions:  

Keep it to a minimum. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends: 

  • No screen time for kids younger than 18 months. But it’s okay if you assist them with video chatting a distant grandparent. 
  • If your child is 18 to 24 months, some media use (like a learning app or high-quality TV show) may be okay — as long as you watch it and react together. As much as you can, encourage imaginative play that’s free from screens.  
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen time to no more than 1 hour per day. And that hour should involve high-quality programming (such as educational shows or programs that teach values like tolerance and empathy). Watch and play along with your kids as much as possible.  

Unplug at certain times and in certain places. Turn off the TV and put away cell phones at dinnertime, one hour before sleep and during homework (unless a computer is needed to do the homework). Your kids should also leave their digital devices in another room when it’s time for bed. Create a family charging station to keep everyone honest. 

Tune in together. Help them understand what they see online or on TV. Pay attention to the apps they download and the social media sites your teens use.  

Remember, children often do as they see. So limit your media use, too, especially when your kids are trying to talk or play with you.  

Teach wisdom and safety. Remind your kids that what they post online leaves a digital footprint that’s nearly permanent. Watch for and keep talking about risky behaviors, like cyberbullying and sexting.  

If you’re concerned about your child’s screen time, talk to their pediatrician. They can help advise you on setting healthy habits. 

Put a screen-time plan in writing 

When it comes to making changes, it can help to have a plan in writing. The AAP has its own media planner that takes your child’s age, developmental stage and family values into consideration. Give it a try to make your own plan.