New guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest that parents of young children limit digital media use to high quality programs that emphasize education or family connection. Parents should also avoid using digital media as a soothing tool, so that children can learn how to regulate their emotions on their own.
“We have to be realistic about the ubiquity of digital media use. It is becoming ingrained in our culture and daily life. For this reason, it is even more important that parents help their children understand the healthy ways to use media from the earliest ages,” said one of the lead authors of the statement, Jenny Radesky, M.D., a developmental behavioral expert and pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
For children aged two to five, the guidelines suggest that media be limited to one hour per day and involve high-quality programming or those in which parents and kids can view or engage in together. For children under 18 months, digital media should be avoided altogether, with the exception of video-chatting.
“Videochatting with grandparents, watching science videos together, putting on streaming music and dancing together, looking up new recipes or craft ideas, taking pictures and videos to show each other, having a family movie night … these are just a few ways media can be used as a tool to support family connection,” Radesky said.
Radesky coauthored the statement for children ages zero to five with Dimitri A. Christakis, M.D., M.P.H., of Seattle Children’s Hospital. The AAP also put out a separate policy statement the same day for older kids (ages six to teenage).
“Digital media has become an inevitable part of childhood for many infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, but research is limited on how this affects their development,” says Radesky.
“In children over three, the research is solid: high-quality programs like Sesame Street can teach kids new ideas. However, under three, toddlers’ immature brains have a hard time transferring what they see on a screen to real-life knowledge,” Radesky said. “We don’t yet know if interactivity helps or hinders that process.”
“What we do know is that early childhood is a time of rapid brain development, when children need time to play, sleep, learn to handle emotions, and build relationships. Research still suggests that excessive media use can get in the way of these important activities. Our statement highlights ways families and pediatricians can help manage a healthy balance.”
Excessive or improper use of digital media is linked to poor sleeping habits, health and development, the statement notes. Heavy media use in preschool is linked to a slight but significant increases in body mass index.
The guidelines suggest not using digital media an hour before bed, turning off devices when not in use and keeping bedrooms, mealtimes and parent-child playtime screen free.
While there are certain moments when when using digital media as a calming tool is helpful, such as on airplanes or during medical procedures, parents should avoid using media as the only way to soothe children, the authors note. Using devices as a common soothing strategy may limit children’s ability to regulate their own emotions, Radesky said.