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A Parent's Age-by-Age Guide to Screen Time

Parenting tips for cell phones, apps and tech for kids, tweens and teens

Published on: March 28, 2019

A family playing a game of chess

As any parent knows, children are great mimics, repeating our favorite swear words in the grocery store, or pretending to “talk on the phone” like Mom or Dad. In our modern, screen-saturated world, this “monkey see, monkey do” behavior brings new challenges for parents and affects kids in different ways at different ages and stages. In truth, our kids watch and learn how to use screens by watching how we use them. The good news is that you can be a great screen-time superhero for your children by modeling the very behavior you hope to see in them!

With infants and toddlers, avoid deputized-tech or tech-distracted parenting

Child development is relational — our attentiveness matters. When it comes to nurturing an infant, the formation of the caregiver-child bond is vital to healthy development. While babies need very little in the way of “gadgets,” modern-day parents are pressured to digitally document sleep and feeding patterns, monitor babies with screen-based devices, and even soothe and comfort using technology.

In reality, it is far more important to channel the precious energy we have as new parents into minimizing the triangulating effects of parent/baby/screen. Be selective about when and where you use your digital devices around young children; healthy attachment develops through eye contact while feeding or comforting your child. The message you want to send to your child is “I am the human who cares for and loves you,” not “This device is something you have to compete with.”

For preschoolers, balance proactive, parent-shared media use with plenty of unplugged play time

Preschool-age children are ready to talk about family values, which can be a great launching point for discussing how and when your family uses technology. This is also the right stage to begin introducing media literacy skills. It’s during this time, when a child is undergoing critical brain development, building secure relationships and establishing healthy media habits, that parents should bone up on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2016 family media use guidelines to inform their own understanding of what healthy media consumption looks like for young children.

5 things teachers want parents to know

  1. Do not text your kids while they’re at school.
  2. Let your kids fail sometimes.
  3. Prioritize sleep.
  4. Set and enforce screen limits at home.
  5. MODEL THE BEHAVIOR YOU WANT TO SEE.

The watchwords here are “proactive” and “parent-led.” As you watch a movie or program with your preschooler, ask questions like: “How is that character feeling?” “Why do you think that happened?” “What might happen next?”  Research shows that children younger than 8 cannot differentiate between content and advertising. With the dramatic increase in age-specific and age-targeted marketing in recent years, it is more imperative than ever that parents intentionally raise a savvy consumer. When you’re watching a commercial or navigating the grocery aisles, ask questions such as “What does that TV character have to do with cereal?”

Decades of child development research show that one of the best ways that preschoolers learn is through tactile, messy, three-dimensional play. Be very selective about using tablets and iPads to “teach” skills. Building with “blocks” by tapping on a two-dimensional glass screen does not have the same positive learning benefits as building with tangible, three-dimensional blocks in the real world.

Empower elementary-school-age kids to develop life skills beyond media

When your child starts attending school full-time, fill their downtime and weekends with non-screen-based activities, especially if their teachers use screens as a learning tool in the classroom. Continue to discuss marketing and media influences so that kids can develop into savvy consumers of their culture and discern when advertisers are targeting them. This age group has a well-defined sense of justice and can also be taught about “persuasive design”: how companies use psychological tricks to try to “hook” kids’ brains to want more. Empowering children at this age is invaluable for developing healthy screen-time habits later.

Similarly, this is an age-appropriate time to teach executive function skills by “living your life out loud,” i.e., by modeling simple tasks, such as cooking, shopping and planning, for kids. This modeling not only helps them develop these skills, but can also teach them how to use tech as a tool (for example, “I am looking at my maps to see where to turn,” “I am checking my calendar to see what time soccer practice starts”). Finally, this is a great time to demonstrate how you personally use screens, and to talk about the potential benefits and pitfalls that come with continuous access. 

Be your middle schooler’s media mentor

In many ways, adolescence is still very much what it always has been: a period of rocky hormonal changes, shifting social dynamics and the exploration of new frontiers. For today’s tweens and teens, however, the prevalence of tech is very different than for earlier generations. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, nearly 95 percent of kids ages 13–17 have smartphones. Among the challenges facing this age group are increased expectations about using screens to “do” school, as well as the social pressure to avoid FOMO (“fear of missing out”). For parents, there are numerous opportunities to be screen-time superheroes for this age group. We can:

  • Talk about safety and digital citizenship (e.g., emphasizing that nothing is private on the internet).
  • Address what to do when kids see something inappropriate or scary online. (It is not a question of if they will see porn, but when.)
  • Challenge schools to provide clear guidelines to families if their student requires any online learning or one-on-one programs.
  • Designate screen-free zones in the house — and follow established family media usage guidelines ourselves.

If you carpool to and from school, car rides are often a valuable opportunity to listen to and learn from your kids and teens; conversely, when kids bury their faces in devices or pop in their earbuds, we miss critical opportunities for connection, not just for ourselves and our child, but between siblings and friends, as well.

Finally, this age group is experiencing a huge neural “pruning” in the brain. As parents, we can encourage (and model) how to build synaptic connections with healthy, non-screen-based activities and skills.

When your child is this age, your guidance still matters a great deal, in spite of what your moody tween may say to the contrary. It is okay to invest in screen-time controls or devices to support your family’s values and guidelines. But, as Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” says, “Monitoring cannot substitute for mentoring.”

High school and beyond: Launching a screen-smart young adult

As independence increases for teens, it is critical to make sure they have basic life skills in place before increasing digital media use. Though they are likely more advanced than we are when it comes to technology, we can still model healthy behavior. For example, parents can teach teens to take breaks from social media, and show them positive examples of how and when kids should do this. Parents can even go so far as to do this with them and then compare notes. 

Stats about teens’ media use

  • About 95 percent of U.S. teens have access to smartphones.
  • Fifty percent are online “practically all the time, including nights.”
  • Teens spend nine hours per day consuming media (outside school hours).
  • Fifty percent of teens say they are “addicted” to their phones.
  • Depressive symptoms among teens increased 50 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Safety conversations at this age are also still critical. For example, if you do not want your teen to text and drive, make sure they don’t see you using your phone behind the wheel.

Although more research is needed on this topic, it is also important to know that there are some potentially serious risks from Wi-Fi radiation. To act preventively, encourage teens to keep phones out of pockets, laptops off laps and devices in airplane mode (when not in use).

As our high schoolers head toward graduation, college and job interviews, it is also a good time to reinforce communication skills, such as how to write a good email, make eye contact and carry on a conversation. Finally, as our teens become young adults, they will look to their own family experiences as a guide to how to live independently.  When we model healthy work-life (or school-life) balance for teens and continue to share with them our own challenges in balancing technology and media use, we are setting them up for future success.

There’s no question that parenting in the digital age has its complications, and constant technological changes can be tough to keep up with. However, when it comes to technology and screen time, the most important thing we can give our kids at any age or stage is the knowledge that we can be a resource for them in how to live a healthy, balanced life.

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