The What, When, and How of Screen Time

. March 1, 2018.
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If you’re a parent, then you’ve probably spent at least some energy lately worrying about screen time. As screens and media become a constant presence in our lives, it’s difficult to know how to set healthy limits for kids. Dr. Sarah Domoff, a child clinical psychologist, is currently conducting research at both Central Michigan University and the University of Michigan that addresses concerns about kids and screen time.

According to Domoff, nationwide studies show that pre-teens use screens for entertainment on an average of 4.5 hours per day. For teens, the average jumps to 7 hours per day. Although parents often want to know how many hours is too many, Domoff says that’s asking the wrong question. Instead of focusing on how much, the Dr. suggests parents should address the what, when and how of screen time.

— What —

Parents should know what their children are seeing online and play a major role in deciding content. “As long as content is positive, prosocial, and age appropriate, it’s okay,” Dornoff says. To find positive options, she recommends using resources such as commonsensemedia.org to see reviews of games, apps and shows. She also encourages families to create a family media plan at healthychildren.org. These resources can help parents structure their kids’ media exposure and create stipulations and boundaries.

— When —

The when of screen time is a critical component of healthy screen use. Domoff says families should set two rules: no devices at mealtimes (including television), and no devices at bedtime. “These two changes have a big impact and help protect times that are important to child development.” Mealtimes should be reserved for family social engagement. Screens at bedtime are responsible for many negative outcomes, including disrupted sleep, obesity and poor academic performance. “If you can limit the times of the day that the child uses screens, that can go a really long way,” Domoff stresses.

— How —

Parents should pay attention to how their children use screens, asking, “How much is the child’s use of screens getting in the way of their functioning and family activities?” Dornoff says. When kids would rather use screens than interact with others or engage in hobbies, the problem should be addressed. If parents suspect that their children are addicted to screens, she recommends identifying the problem early and seeking help from a pediatrician or child psychologist.

Domoff is confident that “if parents manage their children’s screen time, they can reduce negative outcomes. Parents have a lot of power.” Because it’s unrealistic to completely remove screens from children, Domoff wants parents to feel empowered and hopeful about their ability to make a difference for their kids around this issue.

Follow Dr. Domoff on Twitter at @sarah_domoff to stay up to date on research on children’s media use, and visit her website for more resources for parents and teachers at sarahdomoff.com.