Making screen time rules for your kids

Screens can distract kids if they are left on in the background.

By Vanessa LoBue

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Published: Sun 30 Oct 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Sun 30 Oct 2016, 2:00 AM

Some years ago the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that children under the age of 2 should not watch any television, and slightly older kids should be limited to 2 hours of screen time per day. Recently the AAP changed their policy. They now recommend that parents keep infants under 18 months of age away from screens as much as possible, unless it is to video chat. Although some researchers would disagree, a little bit of screen time is not all that bad, as long as you have the right expectations about what screens are and what they are not, and about what they can and can't offer your kids. Here's what research can tell us:
Screens are a means by which kids can learn if the content is educational. But, this is only true for older kids and there is little evidence children under the age of 2 can learn from screens at all, which is what prompted the AAP's original no-screen-time-for-babies policy. There is no evidence that the act of watching a TV or playing with an iPad makes kids dumber, hurts their vocabulary or reading skills, or makes them fail math. It's what screen time is replacing that can be detrimental to learning, like if your child is watching TV instead of playing outside or doing his homework. The bottom line is, active play is always better than using a screen.
Screens can distract kids if they are left on in the background. There's research suggesting that background TV distracts kids from other activities, like playing with toys or talking to parents. It's distracting nature also reduces the quality of children's play. Though kids can learn from screen time or educational television shows, there's lots of research showing that kids learn much better by interacting with their parents, friends, and teachers, and they learn better from screens by watching it with you.
The content of children's screen time matters. There is mounting evidence that engaging with media that contains violent content (including both TV and video games) does in fact increase aggressive behaviour in children. With these ideas in mind, my own rule of thumb for allowable screen time has been to ask myself: What is screen time replacing? If your kids want to spend all their time with screens instead of playing outside, it might be time to make some rules. In fact, the AAP's new recommendations involve creating a family plan for screen time, so that parents can teach children about appropriate screen time use.
The writer is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University specialising in infant and child development.
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