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How to Manage Your Kids’ Screen Time and Social Media Use

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
A young child using a smart phone while playing video games on a PC

Today, more than 50% of kids touch their first screen while still wearing diapers. A reported 95% of teens have access to smartphones and social media. But how much screen time should children be exposed to?

To help parents navigate this question, Courtney Batt, MD, an adolescent medicine expert at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s, shares the latest guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

For Infants and Toddlers

Kids younger than age 2 have trouble understanding what they see on screens. What’s more, when toddlers watch TV or a tablet, it reduces chatter with other people that’s critical to brain development. Infants and young toddlers need hands-on exploration and social interaction to develop thinking, language, social and emotional skills.

That said, a total ban isn’t necessary. Instead, limit media use and only allow your children to use screens with an adult to talk with them and to help them apply what they learn. Video calls with family and parents are a good example of appropriate media use for this age group.

High-quality, educational programming can be introduced around ages 18 to 24 months, the AAP says. And up to age 5, these shows should be limited to one hour per day. Parents should watch alongside their children to help them understand what they see.

For School-Age Children

Once kids are a bit older, educational TV and apps can help them learn, provided you choose wisely.

Still, kids at this age should spend time offline. Unstructured play and social interactions are important for creativity and learning. Make a point to allow unplugged, unstructured playtime each day.

In addition, keep devices out of children’s bedrooms at night and stop all screen time at least an hour before bed. Discourage kids from watching TV or using other media while completing homework.

For Teens

“Allowing adolescents to use social media can help them develop healthy habits, expose them to new ideas and information on current events, and give them access to support groups and communities,” says Dr. Batt. “However, it’s important for parents to monitor this use and recognize that screen time and social media can be detrimental for teenagers, as well.”

More than a third of teens say they use social media almost constantly. From Instagram and TikTok to Discord and Twitch, here’s how parents can help teens keep their social media usage healthy and safe.

Do:

  1. Allow them to create healthy online relationships.
    “Many teens benefit from the support and companionship that comes from interacting online with peers who are similar to them—especially if they’re anxious or lonely,” says Dr. Batt.
  2. Watch for problematic social media use.
    Signs include being unable to stop using devices and lying to retain access to platforms. Problematic use has been linked to sleep problems and attention deficits.
  3. Limit use.
    “Social media shouldn’t interfere with sleep, school or physical activity,” Dr. Batt says. “Parents should set time limits for teens—and for themselves, so they can provide a good example.”

Don’t:

  1. Let younger kids use social media unsupervised.
    Parents should review and discuss the social media use of kids younger than age 15. And you should stay up to date on the newest platforms teens might be using.
  2. Allow interaction with harmful content.
    This includes content around self-harm or risky behaviors, as well as behavior like discrimination and bullying. Create profiles for yourself and “friend” your child or ask teens to show you what they do online. That way, you’ll know what’s happening in their virtual world.
  3. Permit social media for comparison.
    It can be unhealthy to compare yourself to other social media users—especially as it relates to appearance and engagement, such as number of likes or comments. Take action if you see signs of it in your child’s online or offline behavior.

At All Ages

Setting smart limits on media usage can prevent harms, from obesity to troubled sleep to problems at school and home.

One way to do it: Create a family media use plan. Together, draft a document that lays down basic rules. Consider:

  • No screens in bedrooms.
  • Unplugged family mealtimes.
  • A “media curfew” at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Sticking to age-appropriate content, as determined by movie, game and TV ratings.

Model proper media use yourself. For instance, put your phone away during family dinners. Skip the news and violent TV programs in favor of those that foster education, kindness and creativity.

Related Links

The team at the UH Rainbow combines state-of-the-art clinical care and research to diagnose and treat children and adolescents with developmental and behavioral issues. Learn more.

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