Screen Time Reality Check — For Kids And Parents

Dec 26, 2016
Originally published on December 26, 2016 11:49 am

'Tis the day after Christmas and all through the house many kids aren't stirring... They're joyfully lost in their new smartphones, tablets or smart TVs.

And it's likely mom and dad are a little digitally distracted too.

In many households, screens are omnipresent. That reality has some big implications for children. Researchers, for example, have found language delays in those who watch more television.

So what are parents and caregivers to do? That question can be tricky to answer, says Amanda Lenhart, who studies how families use technology at The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

"The thing about parenting today with digital technology is that you don't have your own experience to go back to and look at," Lenhart recently told NPR's All Things Considered. "When you were 10, there probably weren't cellphones. Parents think it's kind of a brave new world, and it changes so fast."

For guidance on screen time, parents often turn to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 2016, the group pulled back from its longstanding recommendation of no screen time for children under 2 years.

The AAP stance is now more nuanced. For babies under 18 months, screen time is still discouraged, except for things like Skype or FaceTime calls with grandma. The big change in thinking is around children aged 18 to 24 months. Instead of urging an outright ban, the pediatricians' group suggests parents who want to introduce screen time do so with high-quality programming, viewed in small quantities alongside their children. That recommendation holds for children 2 to 5 years old, limited to less than an hour a day.

Advice from the AAP and others in the education world emphasizes parent participation in the digital lives of children — to help kids tap into what's fun and creative, and not just use a device as a quick babysitter. Putting that advice into practice is not always so easy though. And as kids get older, the challenges get more complex. The NPR Ed team heard a lot about that when we gathered a group of parents at an NPR Generation Listen event this year in New York City.

"If I can just like get them out the door with their pants on, [it] feels like we've won the morning," said participant Justin Ruben about his two kids — aged 3 and 7. "I feel overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to curate my kid's digital experience."

Lenhart, who studies how families use technology, can relate. She has four daughters and says even she has a hard time following the recommendations: "We get all these great ideas from literature, but then putting it into practice is nearly impossible or is really, really difficult, given the modern lives that we lead — whether it's that your kids won't touch a carrot from 20 feet away or that you really just need 25 minutes and so you put your kids in front a screen so you can get that time."

And to complicate matters further — it isn't just kids' screen time that parents need to think about. A recent study by Common Sense Media found that parents spend, on average, almost nine and a half hours a day in front of a screen. And nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said they think they're modeling good media and watching habits for their kids.

Parents, it seems, need a little screen time reality check too, says Common Sense Media founder and CEO James Steyer. His bottom line for them: Try to model moderation, set some house rules and talk about device use with your kids.

"As a parent, you are your child's most important role model," Steyer says. "How you use media, how you use technology and how much you use it, is critically important."

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'Tis the day after Christmas, and all through the house, many kids probably are not stirring because they're joyfully lost in digital devices. Many parents know that well. Maybe the kids are playing with that new app or game on their smartphone, maybe computer tablet, smart TV. Perfectly fine today, it's a holiday, but experts caution against too much screen time for children, especially younger children. And there's been some changes in their thinking this year. And let's talk about that with NPR's Eric Westervelt from the NPR Ed team. He's on the line. Hey, Eric.


GREENE: So what exactly are experts saying or updating when it comes to these guidelines?

WESTERVELT: The American Academy of Pediatrics pulled back this year from what had been a really long-standing recommendation. They came out with it way back in 1999 that children under age 2 shouldn't have any screen time. They updated that based on research and the reality that screens are everywhere in people's lives all the time.

Now the organization still suggests no screen time is ideal for children under 18 months, except for things like video chats with grandma. But for kids in general 18 to 2 years, the Academy switched and said we need to focus now on what's on the screen and who else is in the room. The recommendation now is to avoid solo screen time with children in that age group.

GREENE: I see.

WESTERVELT: The idea is to treat screen time more like reading a book. You should have a parent or caregiver there present, interacting, pointing out what's on the screen, talking to the toddler.

GREENE: Or talking to grandma.

WESTERVELT: Right, FaceTime and Skype don't count.

GREENE: (Laughter) That's right. Well, what about as kids get older, I mean, like ages 2, 3, 4, 5?

WESTERVELT: Well, the Academy recommends for that group no more than an hour of screen time a day. And as with the younger children recommendations, the Academy says, look, it's important to try to have a parent or caregiver be present. That engagement aspect is key.

GREENE: Eric, I could hear parents hearing this and being like, that's all well and good, but in day-to-day life, it is so hard to figure out how to make the rules at home, how to enforce the rules, when it's OK to be flexible. I mean, this is tough stuff.

WESTERVELT: It is indeed. I mean, enforcing an hour of screen time in the real world, many parents might say it's just not happening. And we heard a lot about that challenge when we got a group of parents together at an NPR Generation Listen event in New York City recently. For example, some educators and experts suggest parents should, as much as possible, try to help curate their children's digital lives to help them tap into what's fun and creative and not just use a device as a babysitter. But Justin Krasner, a father of two children - a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old - says he isn't sure that's realistic.

JUSTIN RUBEN: I feel like if I can just get them out the door with pants on, it feels like we've won the morning. So I feel overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to curate my kids' digital experience.

GREENE: (Laughter) The bar is low. Just get the kids out with the pants on.

WESTERVELT: Right, the breakfast challenge, get them out the door. I mean, it is tough. We talked to even experts who study this very issue of youth families and screen time. Amanda Lenhart does that for a living. She has four daughters, and she says, look, even I have a tough time putting my research recommendations into practice.

AMANDA LENHART: I don't think there are easy answers. The literature hasn't caught up, and the truth of it is a lot of times what I think we find is that we get all these great ideas from literature, but then putting it into practice is really, really difficult given the modern lives that we lead, whether it's that your kids won't touch a carrot from, you know, 20 feet away or that you really just need 25 minutes and so you put your kid in front of the screen so that you can get that time.

GREENE: And are we spending more time on devices as time goes on, I would imagine?

WESTERVELT: Right. There was a recent study out by Common Sense Media that said people with children spend on average almost nine and a half hours a day in front of a screen.

GREENE: Oh, the parents, these are the parents we're talking about.

WESTERVELT: Yeah. You know, here's the thing - 80 percent of parents in that study also said we think we're modeling good behavior for screen time and watching habits for the kids. But there's a bit of hypocrisy there. I mean, I'm guilty of it in my own house. My daughter calls me out on it and says you tell me I can't use the iPad anymore, but, you know, you're on your phone all the time. You're checking email, and you're - you know, she's right. I'm busted, you know? Do I really have to retweet Don Gonyea right then? No, I can wait.

GREENE: (Laughter) Our colleague Don Gonyea. I would retweet him anytime. That is valuable screen time, I would say, but set a better example in other places, Eric.

WESTERVELT: I'm going to try, David.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Eric Westervelt from the NPR Ed team. Thanks a lot, Eric.

WESTERVELT: Thank you, David.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we misidentify Justin Ruben, a parent at the Generation Listen event, as Justin Krasner.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.