How (and Why) Pediatricians Are Changing That Strict No-Screens Rule

For more than 15 years, the American Academy of Pediatrics has been clear about its policy toward screen times for children: babies aged 2 years old and younger should have absolutely no exposure to screens. For older kids, that recommendation loosened only slightly, limiting screen time to a maximum of two hours per day.

Just like the on/off switches on our devices, pediatricians offered no flexibility in such restrictions. Until now.

"In a world where 'screen time' is becoming simply 'time,' our policies must evolve or become obsolete," Dr. Ari Brown of the AAP said in a statement concerning the organization's long-held guidelines, which were first issued in 1999, two years before the invention of the iPod.

So this past Summer, the agency held a symposium that brought together leading doctors and researchers to evaluate data and provide thoughtful, science-driven advice based on the evidence, "not just the precautionary principle." And now — at a time when more than 30 percent of US children first play with a mobile device while still wearing diapers — Brown is sharing the AAP's more nuanced approach to family media use.

Above all, Brown stresses that "digital life begins at a young age, and so must parental guidance." And although formal recommendations are still forthcoming, to help empower parents now, the agency has released the following key messages:

  • Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually. Like any environment, media can have positive and negative effects.
  • Parenting has not changed. The same parenting rules apply to your children's real and virtual environments. Play with them. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Teach kindness. Be involved. Know their friends and where they are going with them.
  • Role modeling is critical. Limit your own media use, and model online etiquette. Attentive parenting requires face time away from screens.
  • We learn from each other. Neuroscience research shows that very young children learn best via two-way communication. "Talk time" between caregiver and child remains critical for language development. Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers. The more media engenders live interactions, the more educational value they may hold (e.g., a toddler chatting by video with a parent who is traveling). Optimal educational media opportunities begin after age 2, when media may play a role in bridging the learning achievement gap.
  • Content matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer.
  • Curation helps. More than 80,000 apps are labeled as educational, but little research validates their quality. An interactive product requires more than "pushing and swiping" to teach. Look to organizations like Common Sense Media that review age-appropriate apps, games, and programs.
  • Coengagement counts. Family participation with media facilitates social interactions and learning. Play a video game with your kids. Your perspective influences how your children understand their media experience. For infants and toddlers, coviewing is essential.
  • Playtime is important. Unstructured playtime stimulates creativity. Prioritize daily unplugged playtime, especially for the very young.
  • Set limits. Tech use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Does your child's technology use help or hinder participation in other activities?
  • It's OK for your teen to be online. Online relationships are integral to adolescent development. Social media can support identity formation. Teach your teen appropriate behaviors that apply in both the real and online worlds. Ask teens to demonstrate what they are doing online to help you understand both content and context.
  • Create tech-free zones. Preserve family mealtime. Recharge devices overnight outside your child's bedroom. These actions encourage family time, healthier eating habits, and healthier sleep.
  • Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. These can be teachable moments if handled with empathy. Certain aberrations, however, such as sexting or posting self-harm images, signal a need to assess youths for other risk-taking behaviors.