From TV to smartphones and tablets to social media, the lives of children and adolescents are dominated by 24/7 media exposure. The key to a healthy balance between digital life and real life, for kids, is to make healthy media choices by managing the time spent with various media. The American Academy of Pediatrics have released a new set of guidelines to help parents and families do just that.

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The AAP states that media can be used as a tool to support the family connection when used together.

The focus of the updated recommendations lies with parents not only paying attention to the amount of time their children spend on digital media but also how, when, and where they use the media.

To support the guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have released an interactive, online tool for families to create their own personalized Family Media Plan.

“Families should proactively think about their children’s media use and talk with children about it, because too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk, or sleep,” says Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral expert and pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI, and lead author of the first policy statement, “Media and Young Minds,” which focuses on infants, toddlers and preschool children.

“What’s most important is that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor.’ That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn,” she adds.

While media use alone has not been identified as the leading cause of any health problems in the United States, experts say that excessive media use can contribute to many health risks, including obesity, lack of sleep, school problems, aggression, and behavioral issues.

The statement advises that with the exception of video chatting – that has been shown to help toddlers learn new skills and social interactions – all digital media should be avoided before the age of 18 months old.

The guidelines note that parents should not feel pressurized to introduce technology to their child early, and reassure that interfaces are so intuitive that their child will figure them out quickly once they do start using them. For children aged 2-5 years, the statement recommends that media should be limited to 1 hour a day and should involve a high-quality program or activity that parents and kids can view and engage with together.

“Digital media has become an inevitable part of childhood for many infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, but research is limited on how this affects their development,” says Dr. Radesky.

Dr. Radesky points out that research is solid in children over age 3 and shows that high-quality programs like Sesame Street can help children learn new ideas and improve literacy and social outcomes. “However, under 3, toddlers’ immature brains have a hard time transferring what they see on a screen to real-life knowledge. We don’t yet know if interactivity helps or hinders that process.”

What researchers do know, she adds, is that early childhood is a time of rapid brain development where children need time allocated to play, sleep, learn to handle emotions, and build relationships. While research suggests that excessive media use can distract children from these activities that play an essential part in their development, the AAP highlight that families can maintain a healthy balance.

The AAP caution that while many apps that parents find are located under the “educational” category in stores on smartphones and tablets, a majority are not evidence-based and include little to no input from developmental educators.

Highlights from the recommendations include banning digital media an hour before bed, turning off devices not in use, and ensuring that bedrooms, mealtimes, and a majority of parent and child playtime remain screen free.

The authors advise that while digital media may be a useful tool to soothe children while on a plane or during a medical procedure, media should not be used as the primary method of calming down a child. According to Dr. Redesky, using devices as a regular soothing strategy limits a child’s ability to regulate their emotions.

Despite the best intentions of limiting time using media, it has become ingrained in the culture of daily life. Families, therefore, have to be realistic about healthy ways to use media from an early age while setting time constraints.

“Video chatting with grandparents, watching science videos together, putting on streaming music and dancing together, looking up new recipes or craft ideas, taking pictures and videos to show each other, having a family movie night. These are just a few ways media can be used as a tool to support family connection,” Dr. Radesky says.

For children aged 18-36 months, it is crucial that adults interact with their child during media use and help their child understand what they see on screen and how it relates to the world around them.

The second policy statement, “Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents,” provides recommendations for children and teens aged 5-18 years. This policy – along with a technical report, “Children, Adolescents and Digital Media,” that provides a review of the scientific literature to support both policies – was published in the journal Pediatrics.

For school-aged children and adolescents, the AAP recommend that digital media use be balanced with other healthy behaviors. The guidelines state that problems begin to arise when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration, and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which are all critical to learning.

Dr. Megan Moreno, lead author of the policy statement on media use in school-aged children and teens, emphasizes the importance of careful use of media in the family unit.

Parents play an important role in helping children and teens navigate media, which can have both positive and negative effects. Parents can set expectations and boundaries to make sure their children’s media experience is a positive one. The key is mindful use of media within a family.”

Dr. Megan Moreno

In addition to covering parents’ role in their children’s use of media, pediatricians are also encouraged to help parents be “media mentors” or role models for choosing high-quality digital content.

“Pediatricians have the opportunity to start conversations with parents early about family media use and habits,” says Dr. Radesky. “We can help parents develop media use plans for their homes, set limits and encourage them to use devices with their children in a way that promotes enhanced learning and greater interaction.”

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