How to Set Smart Screen Time Rules

With a few easy limits, you can use screen time and technology to help your child grow and learn.

By Calvin Hennick




My name is Calvin, and I was a screen snob. My wife and I were deeply committed to following the American Academy of Pediatrics’s guideline that children under 2 shouldn’t be exposed to television or other entertainment media, and we sat in smug judgment of parents who parked their kids in front of the TV. How could they?!

But then our iPad — previously known to our son as the white noise machine that lulled him to sleep at night — somehow found its way into his hands, and he began tapping and swiping. First, he figured out how to play songs. Then I downloaded a baby shapes app to my phone, and he kept himself busy poking at squares and triangles long enough for me to take a shower.

Instead of being zombified as we’d feared, he was engaged. Soon, he was pushing trucks, putting together puzzles, and playing the piano — all on our touch screens. His vocabulary exploded, and before he turned 2, he knew all his letter sounds, picked up from an alphabet app. Hard to find fault with that.

Still, we felt guilty whenever we handed off the iPad, worried we were causing him some vague harm. And if we couldn’t hold firm now, what chance did we stand, once he got older, of following that other American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guideline — that children should spend no more than an hour or two per day on media?

Tired of fretting, I decided to call the experts who’ve studied the issue, and much to my surprise, most of them told me (in slightly more erudite language) that we could all chill out.

Yes, there have been studies that show that too much screen time can cause all sorts of problems. Those are real concerns. But there are also many ways to harness the power of technology into something good.

“There are definitely learning opportunities with traditional and new media. And we encourage them,” says Ari Brown, M.D., an AAP spokesperson who’s heading up the group’s committee on media and children. “But even if all your child watches is the History Channel, you still have to manage that time.”

In other words, it’s all about finding the right balance. And when you choose great content and set some simple boundaries, screen time can fuel — instead of slow — kids’ development, says Michael Rich, Ph.D., director of the Center on Media and Children at Boston Children’s Hospital. Pretty refreshing, right? Now here’s how to do it.

Join ’Em

An easy way to transform the quality of your kids’ time in front of a screen is to tell them to scooch over and make room for you. Playing and watching together make the experience social instead of solitary. “You can’t quantify the importance of the discussions this will spark — or the benefits of simply being physically close,” says Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that rates and reviews kids’ media.

This isn’t to say that you should feel guilt-ridden every time you can’t do this with your child — sometimes dinner needs to be cooked and bills paid. But it’s another reason it’s so critical to be choosy about what you load on their devices or the DVR. Truly great games and shows can inspire and teach your child, while lousy ones (watched over and over) can sap creativity, spur negative behavior, and more.

I came across a study in Pediatrics that looked at this phenomenon. Researchers studied a group of preschoolers to see if their behavior changed when they swapped their usual TV shows with ones that modeled cooperation, good manners, and other positive social skills, such as Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street. Sure enough, after six months, the kids’ behavior had greatly improved.

Even video games, long considered an isolating activity, can help kids connect — that is, when you’re choosing good ones to play. Nancy Peske, a mom and co-author of Raising a Sensory Smart Child, says her 14-year-old and his friends play the worldbuilding game Minecraft on a common server. “There’s teamwork; they’re at each other’s houses,” Peske says. “It’s social.”

One of her son’s friends even called recently to thank him for helping to bail out his flooded virtual house. Peske says her son simply wanted to do his friend a favor. “That’s totally what you want your kids to do in real life.”

Embrace New Technology 

There’s no doubt that touchscreens have had a huge impact on our everyday lives, and now research is showing that they have some real advantages in helping kids learn. That’s because every tap and swipe is interactive, says Dr. Rich. You have to do something to get something. And information kids seek out tends to stick better in their brains than anything spoon-fed. This feature is great for older kids, but it’s really exciting for the younger set.

Case in point: A recent study compared how quickly toddlers learned new words via two videos: one that they simply watched and one that asked them to touch the screen. Only the interactive video increased their vocabulary, says researcher Heather Kirkorian, Ph.D., with the University of Wisconsin. “Just building in that little bit of interest helped the kids learn.”

Make a Family Plan

So it’s pretty clear by now that content is king, and fortunately, there’s no shortage of positive, age-appropriate apps, games, and shows. (Find some at the must-bookmark site As for setting those limits, try these tips:

  • Take charge. We know, it’s easier said than done, but you can do it! Steel yourself for a few tears, but take heart in knowing that it only takes a few days to set a new routine. Just make sure that media isn’t crowding out play, schoolwork, and family time. “It’s about balancing and not assuming that somehow their brains are going to melt in front of a screen,” Dr. Rich says.
  • Be a good role model. When your kids see you putting your phone/iPad/Galaxy away, they’ll get the message a lot faster.
  • Watch her mood, then set rules accordingly. Kids can get frustrated if they play games for too long. Find the “sweet spot,” then stick to bursts of play that are under that. Yes, you still want their overall recreational screen time to be under two hours.
  • Keep screens out of the bedroom. You have to know when and what they’re watching and you can’t do that if they’re behind closed doors.

Screentime Rules Worth Following:

  •  Say no to violent content. Check out games yourself before okaying a download. Research continues to show that ones with war themes can lead to aggression.
  • Nix background TV. Turn it off if nobody is watching. Keeping his (or your) show on in the background is distracting and interferes with healthy interaction. 
  • Opt for active games. When kids are sitting in front of a screen . . . they’re sitting in front of a screen. Encourage video games that get them to move while they play.


5 Fantastic Television Shows for Kids:

We all know there’s a lot of stuff on TV today! Not everything is good, that’s for sure, but there is a lot of wonderful children’s programming. Check your listings for these favorites:

1. Henry Hugglemonster

This book-based gem features an adorable monster who is not afraid to talk about his feelings. Ages 2 to 4. Disney Junior.

2. Super WHY! 

Opportunities abound for early literacy learning in every episode. The show’s effectiveness is backed by scientific research. Ages 2 to 4. PBS Kids.

3. Mike the Knight

Bright and engaging animation brings themes of loyalty and friendship to the next level. Ages 5 to 6. Nickelodeon.

4. SciGirls

Now here’s some good reality TV. Follow along as real girls explore careers in math and science. Ages 7 to 8. PBS.

5. The Legend of Korra

Girls and boys alike will benefit from a strong heroine. Cool action scenes and humor upgrade this from a typical animated series. Ages 8 to 10. Nickelodeon.


Source: Common Sense Media

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