As her infant daughter moved into toddlerhood, NPR education blogger Anya Kamenetz began searching for a book to help her family navigate the world of screens. When she couldn’t find such a book, she decided to write one herself.
The result, The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life (PublicAffairs, 2018), combines extensive research with feedback from hundreds of parents. But the core message is simple, as Kamenetz told Scouting: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.”
While it’s easy to dismiss TV, videogames and mobile devices as dangerous distractions, Kamenetz says they offer plenty of positives, such as the ability to Skype with a distant grandparent or a parent who’s deployed overseas. Moreover, she says, “The fact is that we want our kids to be fluent with technology, to use media, to get joy out of it, to be creative, to be able to express themselves, to learn.”
The key is to keep screens on the side. In Scouting terms, that could mean learning fire-starting techniques from YouTube videos or using mobile apps to identify wildlife.
‘Not Too Much’
One way to keep kids from overdoing technology is to give them credits they can spend for screen time (and perhaps earn by doing chores). For example, Kamenetz’s 6-year-old daughter receives three 20-minute passes a week to use an iPad.
While much of the research into kids and screens is inconclusive (in part because it’s impossible to do randomized trials), one thing is clear: Using screens before bed can disrupt sleep patterns.
“Good sleep hygiene is the No. 1 reason to keep screens out of the bedroom and turn them off an hour before bed,” Kamenetz says. “That’s not something I was super aware of, and I know research shows that a good chunk of kids are doing that.”
‘Mostly With Others’
Getting screens out of bedrooms also makes it easier for parents both to monitor what their kids are doing and to get involved in their online activities.
In the book, Kamenetz talks about a woman and her daughter who research dresses online, make replicas out of paper and then post photos on Instagram. This is a creative, collaborative approach to screen time.
“Whether you’re a big social media person or not, there’s lots of ways to collaborate like that,” she says.
Lead by Example
Beyond her three simple rules, Kamenetz offers one more aimed at parents: Set a good example through your use of technology.
One way to do that, she says, is to explain what you’re doing when you check your phone during family time. After all, if your kids can’t see the screen, they don’t know if you’re replying to a work email, checking the weather forecast or playing video poker.
Being transparent also helps hold you accountable.
“If you’re going to say, ‘Honey, hold on a second, I’m checking my Instagram feed for the 10th time this morning,’ then maybe you’re going to feel like that’s actually not that important for you to be doing at that moment,” she says.
At a Glance: What the AAP Recommends
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers these suggestions for screen time:
Newborn to 18 months: Avoid screens other than video chatting.
18 to 24 months: Choose high-quality programming, such as those on PBS, and watch with your kids, explaining everything they’re seeing.
2 to 5 years: Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Watch with your kids, pausing when appropriate to discuss what they’re seeing. Balance screen time with other healthy behaviors like unstructured play inside and out.
6 and older: Place limits on the time spent using media, and stick to the limits. Make sure screen time doesn’t affect your child’s sleep, physical activity or other healthy behaviors. Agree on media-free times together, such as dinner, and media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms. Create a custom family media plan at HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan