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5 New Recommendations On Screen Time From The Doctors Who Study It

If you’re a parent in 2015, your kid probably spends more time in front of the iPad/smartphone/laptop than the average pediatrician would recommend. But what, exactly, would a pediatrician recommend?

The American Academy Of Pediatrics hasn’t released a policy paper on the topic since before iPads were really a thing, and that paper mostly reaffirmed its 1999 policy: The negative impact of screens strongly outweighs the positive impact, particularly for kids 2 and younger. The AAP might be full of All Pro Doctors, but its policy seems a little out of step with reality — and clearly none of them have taken a long road trip with your toddler.

Dr. David Hill chairs the AAP’s Council On Communications And Media Executive Committee and he wants you to know that, unlike the 50-some-odd years of data around TV watching, “the developmental implications of these devices for children” are still an open research question. But he also wants you to know they understand your kid wants to play another Curious George game on your tablet right now. So, he’s meeting you halfway.

While the AAP grinds through research in hopes of issuing a new policy statement later next year, Hill and his colleagues recently released some key messages for parents in the interim. “Parenting has not changed,” he says. “It remains a process of lovingly setting limits and choosing what limits to set. That’s not going anywhere just because we use new technologies. It still involves saying no some of the time. We don’t let them eat all the candy they want.”

That was not a passive-aggressive comment on how much Candy Crush you let your kid play. It was, however, a pediatrician recommendation. Here are a few more …

1. Screen Time Isn’t Always Bad
“I think the bottom line might be more subtle than that,” says Hill, adding that it will have to be adjusted for age and for the nature of the screen time. “Whatever our new guidelines say, they’re not going to discourage screen time with parents overseas via Skype. … Is a little bit of interactive iPad time ok while mom takes a shower? There’s no data, but the danger is probably fairly low. Is parking a child in front of an iPad for three hours while you get some things done? Is that harmful? Yeah, probably.”

2. Content Matters
Just as there are more and … ahem … less beneficial things you could be doing online, screen media for kids is also not monolithic. It varies widely — even among supposedly educational apps. “There are tens of thousands of games on the market claiming to help children learn,” says Hill. “You get better at these games. But it’s not at all clear that the skills from these games are generalizable.” He says it’s a bit like the Lumosity brain games for adults in that, just because you’re scores go up, there’s no proof you’ve actually improved your overall brain health (sorry if that nullifies how you’ve been spending alone time on the toilet).

Hill and the AAP rely on Common Sense Media, which reviews age-appropriate games, apps and programs, for their recommendations on apps that have real educational value for kids.

3. Start Playing With Them
Kids over the age of 3 can certainly learn from media, says Hill. But in all of these cases, they learn much faster if an adult is working with them. An adult’s perspective greatly influences how a child processes what they’re seeing on the screen — and playing remotely with someone may not count. He says even when looking at live interactions like Skype or FaceTime, one “intriguing” study showed that while some learning does take place, it still pales in comparison with face-to-face interaction in the same space.

4. What They’re Not Doing Is As Important As What They’re Doing
Don’t overlook the “opportunity cost” of your kid’s screen time. That is, if they’re on your smartphone, what aren’t they doing? “Kids learn best from other people in their environment,” says Hill. “We see that in homes with a lot of background TV. In such homes, there is a dramatic decrease in the number of words spoken by adults. That decrease is strongly correlated to poor language development in children.” He suggests looking at setting goals for time with your child: “What would you like your child to be doing today, and are there 2 hours left to look at a screen?”

5. It’s Not Just About Their Screen; It’s About Yours
One of the questions that AAP hopes to address, says Hill, is whether the parent’s device is equally or even more important in fostering learning and social development. In other words, if your kindergartener’s face isn’t buried in a marathon session of Fruit Ninja, but yours is, the effect could be largely the same. He suggests creating “tech-free zones,” like at the dinner table or the front seat of the car — times when “you’re really focusing on each other.”

6. Get Screens Out of the Bedroom
For all the data that the AAP doesn’t have on, say, screen time and language development, they have plenty of it when it comes to screen time and sleep. “The blue light they emit has a strong effect on melatonin secretion,” Hill says. “As a general rule, bedtime is a lousy time to have a screen.”

For the record, that advice is just as applicable to your marriage as it is to your kid, but don’t expect Hill and his colleagues to have a comment on that. After all, if they haven’t taken a long road trip with your toddler, presumably they haven’t been in your bedroom, either.