There are few more anxiety laced topics for parents in the quest to raise well-adjusted and successful children than the issue of screen time. And with 95 percent of families with children under eight having smartphones and 42 percent of kids under eight having their own device in some form (according to Common Sense Media), the potential for digital damage is real.
For example, a January study published in JAMA pediatrics found that screen time could effect a child's language skills and ability to socialize.
So how much should our kids be on their devices? When does it cross the line? It's a topic that causes guilt, worry, and uncertainty. Some answers may have arrived with the World Health Organization (the public health arm of the United Nations) or WHO drawing the line on kids screen time via their recently issued, first-ever guidelines.
The guidelines say any child under one should never see a screen, rarely under two-years-old, and for two-four years old, no more than one-hour of screen time.
First and foremost, I urge you not to take these guidelines as another vehicle to judge parents. For those of you without children, it's hard to imagine how precious those moments of screen-induced solitude are. That said, the guidelines were issued for a reason, and they should be taken into account, along with important perspective.
The study doesn't say that in and of itself staring at a screen is damaging, it's in how we use screens and whether or not we allow addictive, compulsive screen use.
For example, one 2010 Georgetown University study showed that when parents co-watch a Baby Mozart video specifically intended to build a child's language skills, it was an effective, good thing (as opposed to turning on a device and walking away). Another 2014 study from the University of Washington showed than when grandbaby gets on Skype with grandma, it's good for language development.
In other words, not all screen time is created equal.
It's also important to note that the primary point of the WHO's guidelines are to establish the opportunity cost of screen time, i.e. if kids are on the screen they're not playing and moving--two things the WHO really lasered in on. Said differently, anything kids are doing that isn't moving and playing won't be viewed as favorably.
So in general, it's wise to limit screen time as much as possible for kids under four, within reason. But giving your child 15 extra minutes of screen time for the blissful peace it offers or as a reward isn't going to keep junior from getting into Harvard.
The WHO didn't offer more general screen time guidelines for children older than four, so I enlisted the help of fellow Inc.com columnist and psychotherapist Amy Morin for that. Here are my two favorite tips for managing kids screen time from Morin and an interesting one I discovered.
1. Have technology free zones.
Like the dinner table, at any social event, or in their bedroom. I know from my own digital behaviors and watching my daughter's as well, it's all too easy to bring the phone/tablet with you everywhere, as if it were an extension of you.
2. Interrupt "device as default" mode.
It's easy for kids to feel entitled to screen time given its ubiquity. It becomes a default, while things like moving and doing healthier things become opportunity costs. Morin says get involved in activities with your kids to break the patterns that can lead to screen addiction. This includes role-modeling the fact that you don't treat your device as a default either.
3. Make screen time a reward, not a right.
The old adage "you get the behavior you reward" applies here. For example, I recently interviewed Keri Mackey, co-founder of Goya-move, a "parental control" app that seeks to monitor kids screen time and get them moving (hence the name Goya-move, Get off your apps-and move). 10,000 parents have downloaded the app which unlocks a child's access to apps only after they've taken a certain amount of steps. The standard goal is 10,000 steps a day (you can set a goal for any number of steps or by an amount of time), when the child hits the goal, boom, they can access their favorite app.
You can also create your own reward system, old school style, like simply maintaining possession of their device and giving it to them in clearly defined "reward periods," like after doing homework. Not easy, but doable if you stick to the restrictions.
The broader point is to get creative about portioning out kids screen time as a reward.
While the new screen time guidelines are just that, guidelines, I hope they guide you to better solutions and lower anxiety for a big 21st century concern.