Screen time rules unpacked

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It was the cleverest use of a plastic crate and bungee cords I’d ever seen. We were hitting the road for a summer adventure with our three young kids and none of them were great in the car. In the past, I had experimented with little treats on their seats, a Barney sing along and road trip bingo. None of these ideas landed. In fact, bingo made one of the kids’ car sick. Enter the crate and bungee cords. We strapped an old TV monitor and DVD player to the crate and wedged it in between the arm rests of the mini-van. This was the pre-tablet, monitors in the back of head rests era. We had magically created in-vehicle entertainment for the journey and I want to tell you, it was bliss.

Long before COVID-19, we were hearing regular messaging that parents were using screen time for babysitting and stress management. These headlines often made us feel guilty since of course, most of us were doing exactly that! We were told again and again; screen time was a privilege and it was meant to be managed. In reality, many of us were using it to get a break while juggling a million other things. And we all know the truth – it works wonders. 

Fast forward to 2020, screen time shifted dramatically from a privilege to a necessity. Some form of computer screen became interwoven into many children’s daily routines, not only for learning, but as the primary way to socialize and stay connected. Now that many things are returning to in-person, we are once again trying to figure out what is a healthy dose of time to be in front of a screen.

 Here are the latest recommendations from North American Pediatric Societies:

  • Children under 2: Avoid all screen time for children younger than 18-24 months old, except video-chatting or time co-playing with parents on apps after 6 months of age. 
  • Children ages 2-5: No more than one hour of screen time of high-quality, educational content per day.

Children ages 6 and older: Establish personal screen time limits that ensure media doesn’t interfere with sleep, exercise or other healthy behaviours.

The magic phrase in the last category is “establish personal screen time limits”. That’s a huge shift from the old rules that recommended a set number of hours ranging from 1-2 hours a day which included TV, online games, apps and reading. Now that children can use a screen to do pretty well anything including exercise, education and entertainment, the rules have gone out the window. 

The three new recommendations for parents from the experts includes; delaying the introduction of screens as long as possible, model good screen use and be consistent with the rules. 

So how many hours is too much? I’ve heard parents say a set number would give them more direction but at the end of the day, it never hurts to go with your gut. You can usually hear the voice in your head that says, “I’ve really got to put more limits in place. I’m tired and it’s hard to enforce the rules but I should probably try again. And I really should put my phone down more!” As for limits, what do they look like? It’s about balance. Are they getting fresh air, playing, interacting with others, moving their bodies, hanging out with their important people and on occasion, feeling bored? Weaving screen time into that mix is part of today’s world.  

There’s also the incredibly wise saying “pick and choose your battles”. We enjoyed five hours of quiet on a car ride and spent the next week suction cupped as a family on our summer adventure. The plastic crate, bungee cord set up gave me the bandwidth to be more present. We ended up playing bingo after all – without the motion sickness.