THE BLOG
12/13/2016 02:25 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2017

A Parent's Guide to the American Academy of Pediatrics Screen Time Guidelines

THIS BLOG POST IS WRITTEN WITH KATHY HIRSH-PASEK AND BRENNA HASSINGER-DAS, PH.D., ONE OF OUR EXTREMELY TALENTED POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWS.

Children's digital media is back in the news. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released new guidelines http://bit.ly/2eUUttI on media and young minds and again, parents are challenged to decide whether they should limit their children's exposure to screens or to let their brood decide. How much digital media consumption is acceptable for young children?

Well it depends. In the newest recommendations, the "no screens under two" has given way to "no screens for 18 months and younger" with the proviso that video chatting is acceptable. Perhaps the folks on the committee are grandparents hoping to read to a far off grandbaby or parents who want to check in without guilt when traveling for work. Recommendations for older children include less than one hour per day of screen time, only using "high-quality programming," and co-viewing with an adult. However, the notion of "high-quality" programming remains a bit abstract. The shifting sands at the AAP along with the current state of research seem to be converging on a truism: digital media itself is not necessarily a problem--the problem lies with how that technology is used.

As a parent of a preschooler, my son occasionally watches more videos than the AAP might recommend--particularly on cross-country flights. The YouTube Kids app provides the perfect steady diet of truck, tractor, and train videos to lull my 3-year-old into contentment over the course of long trips from Pennsylvania to California. Unlike many parents, however, I don't just outsource his free time to screen time. Rather, I watch the videos with him--pointing out interesting images and asking him questions, just like the AAP recommends.

I know. I know. We are all so busy that we surely do not have the time to work, read, sing, do laundry, cook, and watch every app with our kid. Come on! So how can busy parents incorporate these kinds of back-and-forth conversations into their children's interactions with technology?
Reading an e-book together is one way to make sure you are staying involved in your children's screen time. There has been some conflicting evidence regarding the benefits and drawbacks of e-books. Some studies http://bit.ly/2h0Ue16 have suggested that e-books are distracting and children do not retain an understanding of the story; others http://bit.ly/2goMkOD have not found any effects of book type. As adults and children become used to interacting with e-books together, the novelty may be wearing off as families begin incorporating e-books into their regular routines. In fact, e-book sales now surpass paper book sales on Amazon.com.

The same strategies that parents can use with paper books work with e-books. To get children actively engaging with the story parents can ask questions about how the story relates to the child's own experiences: "The bear is riding a tricycle! Remember how you learned to ride your tricycle last summer at Grandma's house?" Parents can also ask children questions like, "Why do you think Cally is sad?" helping them interpret the pictures and text. These kinds of conversational interactions are key to building a solid foundation for children's language http://bit.ly/2ggnoud development. It is also important to provide just enough support so that the reading experience is challenging enough for the child to understand with a little help.

By infusing children's technology experiences with supportive adult interactions--such as during e-book reading--parents can ensure that we are doing right by our kids. Technology can be a marvelous tool--but only if we know how to use it.