In case you didn’t have enough to keep up with as a single parent, the rules have changed around kids and screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently released updated guidelines for 2017 by lifting the “ban” on screen time for kids under the age of two and giving parents more leeway for time limits with older children and teens.
As a psychologist who sees many parents, divorced and married, I think the AAP guidelines are a great starting point for parents struggling to manage the amount of time kids spend in front of screens.
But remember, they are only guidelines—far easier to create than to carry out, especially when you don’t have an in-house co-parent to help. You are the parent, and you should use guidelines to help you make decisions that work for you and your family.
As a mom who spent countless hours watching TV while feeding my (slow-eating) babies, I relied on the screen to avoid losing my mind. Well-chosen movies, games and apps can be a lifesaver when kids are sick, when you’re sick, when you’re trying to get your child to sit still for a doctor's visit, or when you’re counting the minutes until your four-hour flight lands.
Here are the most important takeaways from the new guidelines, based on age, as well as some helpful tips on using them in the real world of single parenting.
Infants, under 18-months, should be screen-free.
Basically, the AAP recommends that you pretend your child is allergic to screens. Don’t sit your baby in front of a screen, and try not to watch TV or check your text messages in front of him. Here are my additional suggestions:
Do your very best not to make screens a part of your routine with your infant. For example, don’t get in the habit of watching educational programs, and make an effort to flip your phone over if you’re using it to play music for your child.
Be aware of how much time and attention you are giving to screens while you are actively with your child. Turn off the TV during meals, leave your phone on the counter when you’re playing, and press “pause” on introducing movies and television shows—even educational ones—for now.
Take time to read and talk to your children. If you have older kids, encourage them to step in and entertain your youngest; there’s no educational programming that can beat the show you or your other kids can put on for your baby!
Toddlers, aged 18 to 24-months, can take limited exposure.
The AAP says that a tiny bit of screen time is okay, but only if supervised, and limited to high-quality educational activities or Skype or FaceTime chats with your child’s other parent or family members. Here are some other things to keep in mind:
Make sure that the App or game you choose is truly educational by taking a few minutes to test it out yourself. Then set a timer for 10-15 minutes while your child plays. It’s too easy to bask in the quiet of a child entertained by a screen without a safeguard against your own over-reliance on it.
Make an effort to be near your toddler while he’s using a screen.
Keep screen time separate from bedtime. If you introduce music or even audiobooks as a “helping hand” during the bedtime routine, that can be a very hard habit to break.
Read print books to your toddler. While the interactive components of eBooks are exciting and stimulating, research suggests that they can be distracting, and get in the way of what your child comprehends. Plus, holding a board book or turning pages helps kids establish a physical connection to their world, and develop fine motor skills.
For preschoolers, aged two to five, one hour a day, or less, is plenty.
The new AAP guidelines suggest no more than one hour per day of educational screen time, adding that you should view with your child. (Just when you thought you had a guilt-free hour of peace!).
While you should make an effort to be near your child while she watches a show, don’t feel pressured to be glued to her side. Check in from the other room to ask what she’s doing or seeing, and follow-up to answer any questions. You’ll probably get an earful about whatever the Paw Patrol pups are doing or the lessons taught by Elmo and friends. Engaging in conversation with your child about what she’s learning is critical, even if it’s from the TV and only a few quick exchanges.
Be sure to monitor what you’re watching or doing on screens in front of your child. A preschooler is old enough to see and hear everything. Definitely turn the news off and avoid having the television on in the background.
Begin to talk to your child about the impact of television ads and the fact that a person cannot always believe what she hears.
For kids six years and older, screen time comes after everything else time.
The AAP suggests that parents make sure kids do their schoolwork, socialize, get a least one-hour of physical activity per day, and get ample rest (8-12 hours per night depending on age). In their spare time? They can watch shows, play games and use apps—but only carefully selected ones. Unfortunately, that’s a little less clear than guidelines for younger kids. Here’s what to focus on:
Remember that access to screens is a privilege. Talk to your child about what they need to be responsible for in order to earn that privilege. Set limits on time and content. My stance is that if a child is watching two or more hours of screen time a day, that usually is coming at the expense of other important activities.
Accept that the rules may not be the same at your house and your ex’s house. Do your best to communicate and create a consistent plan, but don’t get hung up on what happens when you’re not the one calling the shots. Instead, stay focused on the guidelines you’ve explained to your child and stand firm if you get pushback based on what happens with screens at your ex’s.
Keep sleep sacred. To do this, have kids turn off or hand over screens an hour before bed, and don’t allow smartphones and tablets to reside on night tables. This is a habit to break, and one that can have long-term negative consequences on sleep because the light emitted from screens makes it hard to fall asleep.
Finally, have ongoing, candid conversations about the aim of media advertisers so your child is not brainwashed by targeted messages. Teaching your child to be a thoughtful consumer of information provides an invaluable life skill as well as a tool to handle the influence of advertisers in the present day.
Stephanie O'Leary, Psy.D. is a Clinical Psychologist specializing in Neuropsychology, and a mom of two. She provides parents with a no-nonsense approach to navigating the daily grind while preparing their children for the challenges they’ll face in the real world.