‘Tis the day after Christmas and all through the house many kids aren’t stirring… They’re joyfully lost in their new smartphones, tablets or smart TVs.
And it’s likely mom and dad are a little digitally distracted too.
In many households, screens are omnipresent. That reality has some big implications for children. Researchers, for example, have found language delays in those who watch more television.
So what are parents and caregivers to do? That question can be tricky to answer, says Amanda Lenhart, who studies how families use technology at The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
“The thing about parenting today with digital technology is that you don’t have your own experience to go back to and look at,” Lenhart recently told NPR’s All Things Considered. “When you were 10, there probably weren’t cellphones. Parents think it’s kind of a brave new world, and it changes so fast.”
For guidance on screen time, parents often turn to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 2016, the group pulled back from its longstanding recommendation of no screen time for children under 2 years.
The AAP stance is now more nuanced. For babies under 18 months, screen time is still discouraged, except for things like Skype or FaceTime calls with grandma. The big change in thinking is around children aged 18 to 24 months. Instead of urging an outright ban, the pediatricians’ group suggests parents who want to introduce screen time do so with high-quality programming, viewed in small quantities alongside their children. That recommendation holds for children 2 to 5 years old, limited to less than an hour a day.
Advice from the AAP and others in the education world emphasizes parent participation in the digital lives of children — to help kids tap into what’s fun and creative, and not just use a device as a quick babysitter. Putting that advice into practice is not always so easy though. And as kids get older, the challenges get more complex. The NPR Ed team heard a lot about that when we gathered a group of parents at an NPR Generation Listen event this year in New York City.
“If I can just like get them out the door with their pants on, [it] feels like we’ve won the morning,” said participant Justin Ruben about his two kids — aged 3 and 7. “I feel overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to curate my kid’s digital experience.”
Lenhart, who studies how families use technology, can relate. She has four daughters and says even she has a hard time following the recommendations: “We get all these great ideas from literature, but then putting it into practice is nearly impossible or is really, really difficult, given the modern lives that we lead — whether it’s that your kids won’t touch a carrot from 20 feet away or that you really just need 25 minutes and so you put your kids in front a screen so you can get that time.”
And to complicate matters further — it isn’t just kids’ screen time that parents need to think about. A recent study by Common Sense Media found that parents spend, on average, almost nine and a half hours a day in front of a screen. And nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said they think they’re modeling good media and watching habits for their kids.
Parents, it seems, need a little screen time reality check too, says Common Sense Media founder and CEO James Steyer. His bottom line for them: Try to model moderation, set some house rules and talk about device use with your kids.
“As a parent, you are your child’s most important role model,” Steyer says. “How you use media, how you use technology and how much you use it, is critically important.”