Screen time guidelines: ‘what’ more important than ‘how much’ (Part 1)

Many parents were relieved to hear that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently updated their screen time guidelines in an attempt to maintain relevancy in this screen-saturated world. A completely new set of guidelines will be released in 2016.

Absence of time recommendations

One of the most significant differences in the AAP’s revised screen time guidelines is the absence of specific amounts of recommended screen-time.

The previous guidelines suggested that children under two years of age ideally have no screen-time – a recommendation which was completely unattainable and unrealistic for many parents.

AAP screentime recommendations

These recommendations usually left many parents with feelings of anxiety and techno-guilt.

The revised approach now taken by the AAP focuses on ‘what’ children are doing while they’re using screens, as opposed to simply focusing on ‘how much’ time they’re spending with these screens.

This is a welcomed relief.

As a children’s technology and development expert (and a mum who grapples with pangs of guilt about my children’s occasional use of screens) this is a really important and realistic advancement in our thinking about screens.

Because what a child does with a screen is so much more important than simply quantifying ‘how much’ time they spend with screens.

There aren’t ‘safe’ screen time limits

Using time as a metric to determine ‘healthy’ or ‘safe’ use of screens is narrow and can often lull parents into a false sense of security.  If we focus exclusively on how much time they’re spending with screens, then we’re missing other really important considerations, such as what they’re doing during those screen-time hours.

There are qualitative differences between an hour spent watching YouTube clips, and an hour spent creating a digital story on a tablet device. An hour spent playing a violent video game, is vastly different to an hour spent playing educational apps. Not all screens are created equal.

Flawed thinking

Prescribing universal time limits, according to a child’s chronological age is near impossible.

Firstly, the previous guidelines were predominantly based on scientific research with passive types of technology (watching TV, videos etc). However, today’s children are spending increasing amounts of time with more interactive types of technologies (like smartphones and tablet devices).

But we don’t yet have the research evidence that’s evaluated the potential of these more engaging and interactive devices. Remember, the iPad has only just turned 5 years old and researchers are notoriously slow at conducting and publishing research.

Secondly, the previous AAP guidelines were not based on empirical studies that show ‘safe’ levels or thresholds of screen time. Instead, they were based on concerns related to displacement effects of screen-time. Basically, when our children use a screen they’re not doing something else (hanging upside down off monkey bars, or interacting with siblings or parents). This means that there’s an opportunity cost related to screen-time.

But this way of thinking implies that all screen time is unhelpful and interferes with children’s development. And that’s simply not the case. There’s an extensive and robust corpus of research that confirms that when young children use technology that’s developmentally appropriate and intentionally used, that they benefit from its use.

Finally, the previous AAP guidelines, based heavily on using time as a metric ignored the fact that children respond to technology in different ways.  For some children, twenty minutes on a device is more than sufficient (without it having an adverse impact on their behaviour). For other children, they can watch TV, or play an age-appropriate video-game for an hour and it would not adversely impact their behavior. As we all know, children are all so different.

Kids still need limits

As parents it’s certainly imperative that we establish and enforce screen-time limits. Many of us know that our children simply never put down the iPad, or switch off the TV if we gave them free-reign.

But before we think about how much time they’re spending with screens, we need to think carefully about what they’re doing with those screens.

Dr Kristy Goodwin
Dr Kristy Goodwin is a children’s technology, learning and development expert and a mum who’s also trying to balance her kids’ screen-time with green-time.

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