Although I advise families on healthy, balanced media use, I have to come clean: I was co-raised by TV in the 1980s. Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons melted by, windows shut against the Louisiana humidity and the buzz of cicadas. We didn’t have cable, so it was a lot of syndication, a lot of laugh tracks, a lot of hug-and-freeze happy endings.
Did it hurt? Hard to say. I don’t play piano or speak French; on the other hand, I’m relatively hale and employed. These days, of course, parents aspire to be more conscientious. But it’s also true that the media world our kids have to navigate has mutated into unfamiliar and sometimes menacing forms. And researchers are laboring to catch up. Here’s what we know so far about the most common questions parents ask me.
How Much Are Kids Watching?
It depends on how old they are and who you ask. A regular nationally representative parent survey by Common Sense Media finds that children up to age 8 average an hour and 40 minutes a day. For those ages 8 to 12, it’s two and a half hours. But parents might be fudging. Nielsen, which uses a meter to track media use, found in 2015 that children ages 2 to 11 years old averaged almost 27 hours a week across platforms. That’s 3.9 hours per day.
Should I Make Rules?
Yes, you should. “Restrictive mediation — setting limits on content and amount of time — is associated with a lot of positive outcomes,” says Sarah Domoff, a psychologist and director of the Family Health Lab at Central Michigan University. Of course, this positive association may also emerge in the data because setting media limits just happens to be something that conscientious, confident parents with more affluence and more time tend to do.
What Should the Rules Be?
When setting rules, consider your kids’ age, development, and family dynamics. Time limits are both more appropriate and easier to enforce at younger ages. Domoff and other experts say that it makes the most sense to work backward from your other goals as a family. No screens an hour before bedtime because they interfere with sleep; no screens at meals because they interfere with mindful eating and family conversation; screens only when homework is done and they have already played outside. Depending on your family setup, this could be two hours a week or two hours a day, and either could be fine.
If I’m Too Restrictive, Will It Backfire?
“I advise against doing anything very drastic with screen time,” says Domoff. The reason: If you ban screen media entirely from your home, you are denying kids the opportunity to learn to self-regulate. The American Academy of Pediatrics would still prefer that the only screen exposure for children under 2 comes from video chatting. But for older kids, the ideal is that parents are around to scaffold healthy use, to help kids interpret what they watch, and to frame TV and videos as a “sometimes activity.”
Is It Bad to Use Media Time As a Reward or Punishment?
It’s probably not ideal. “Just as we wouldn’t want to use food as a reward, we don’t ideally tie behavior and compliance to screens,” says Domoff. You want to have better tools in your kit, like praise and timeouts for younger kids; for older kids, negotiation, compromise and natural consequences.
What If They Have a Tantrum When I Turn It Off?
This happens a lot because media is very stimulating, and when you yank the stimulus away, kids need something to do with all that cortisol or adrenaline. Often the reaction is explosive. Domoff coaches parents this way:
1. Give a clear limit beforehand.
2. Give them a five-minute warning.
3. “Okay, time to move on, please shut off the tablet.”
4. Praise compliance: “Thank you for listening so well and shutting down the tablet!”
5. Have a different activity lined up. Preferably it’s one that includes positive attention and focus from you. This could be a snack, a trip to the park, or a non-screen playtime activity.
What If Your Kids See Something They Shouldn’t?
Maybe it’s scary, maybe it’s sexual, maybe it’s violent or offensive. The answer is the same: “Talk to them,” says Dr. Michael Rich of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “And listen to them even more than you talk.” In fact, we should be having an ongoing regular conversation with our kids about what they’re watching. “All media is educational,” Rich says — not just Sesame Street. Kids are taking cues on what’s appropriate or expected behavior. So ideally we are asking questions but also helping children understand, in an age-appropriate way, that media is a selective and skewed representation of reality.
If it’s scary: First of all, childhood anxieties and fears of the dark are very common, so don’t beat yourself up too much if your kids get nightmares from something they watched (except for my parents, who allowed me to see Poltergeist when I was 4 — that was a very bad idea.) Rich says if they saw something on the news, show them on a map how far away it is. Hurricane or kidnapping? Emphasize how rare it is. Zombies? Remind them that it’s make-believe.
What About Porn?
Research suggests most children have seen sexually explicit material online by the time they’re 13. “I encourage parents and kids to be open about it,” says Rich. “Not to pretend it’s not there.” Let your kids know they can come to you if they find something confusing and they won’t get in trouble. Also talk to them, as they get older, about how images of sex online do not reflect real life and can make relationships less satisfying.
How Much TV Is Too Much?
Domoff and colleagues have created a nine-item questionnaire for parents called the Problematic Media Use Measure. The questions don’t ask about the amount of time but about children’s relationship to media: Are they preoccupied with it? Are they always scheming to get more TV time? Does it interfere with friendships, family time, or schoolwork? When my child has a bad day, is screen media the only thing that seems to help? If this sets off alarm bells, Domoff suggests talking to your pediatrician. Her lab is currently testing an intervention that relies on parents rebuilding a positive relationship with their children. Praise behavior you want to see, and ignore behavior that you don’t. And dedicate time to playing with your kids on their own terms.
Anya Kamentz is the author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life and an education reporter for NPR.
*A version of this article appears in the December 23, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!