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Setting reasonable limits on kids’ digital diversions

December 15, 2015

Guest post from the Indiana Youth Institute

By Glenn Augustine

INDIANAPOLIS—A flurry of Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals soon will give way to unwrapped boxes containing smartphones, tablets and laptops—the holiday haul for many teens, tweens and even toddlers.

The timing leaves parents only a few short weeks to consider how these digital gadgets will change family dynamics. But a recent study looking at screen time amongst tweens and teens gives parents plenty to consider. Thankfully the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has just released new tips for parents raising “digital natives.” At the top of the tips list—this is still parenting, just in a different environment, and the rules are the same.

iye“You are going to set limits, right? You would do that on the playground and you’re going to set limits on screens,” said Dr. Ari Brown, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics who was involved in drafting the tips. “You want to know who your kid’s friends are and who they’re going out with, right? So you want to know who your kid’s friends are online and where they’re hanging out. And it’s really simple when you put it in those terms.”

Simple, but time consuming. A new report from Common Sense Media finds that teens ages 13-18 use entertainment media an average of nine hours per day. Tweens, those ages 8-12, use an average of six hours a day. That does not include time spent using media for school or homework. Researchers say the findings are a wakeup call for parents to have conversations with their children to ensure they lead happy, healthy lives with media.

“It’s really an effort to find a balance with it so it doesn’t become the first and foremost concern in a child’s life,” said Crista Sumanik, senior director of communications for Common Sense Media. “To make sure that when media is part of a child’s life it’s used to maximize its potential for learning and for creating and communicating and not for plugging in and tuning out. That’s our real concern.”

The Common Sense study found a significant digital gap between children from low-income backgrounds and their wealthier peers, mainly because middle- and upper-income children have more access to technology. However, low-income children who have access are more likely to spend more time on their devices than their affluent peers.

So what are our children doing on screens? While teen boys are playing an hour of video games and spending nearly that much time on social media each day, their female counterparts are dedicating 90 minutes to social media. Teens spend more time listening to music than tweens, who spend more time than teens watching TV. Both age groups are accessing video and music more frequently from tablets and phones. And both say they watch TV, text, use social media and listen to music while doing homework. This despite research that shows multitasking inhibits a child’s ability to study and learn.

Also on the learning front, the AAP says children less than two years of age learn best from real people and real things. Parents who talk to their young children, whether sitting down with them or chatting while doing something else, are building vocabulary. Reading books to children also builds literacy.

“There is no screen that’s going to replace that,” Brown said. “We definitely want to prioritize human interactions.”

The Common Sense Media Use study helped inform the American Academy of Pediatrics’ tips. While the AAP intends to release a more detailed policy statement at a later date, Brown says the tips give parents ideas they can put into practice immediately. Among the tips:

  • do not focus solely on screen time;
  • focus on content and your children’s behaviors while using digital media;
  • have agreements about when and where technology can be used;
  • turn off devices 30 minutes before bed time and charge them in a central location; and
  • take time to unplug and connect as a family.

Brown says the importance of human interaction cannot be understated. Communication is key for healthy families and managing the digital divide between children and parents.

“You really do have to throw yourself into it, put on your crash helmet and parent,” Sumanik said.

Glenn Augustine is the Interim CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He may be reached at or followed at @augustine_glenn.