Screens have become an ever-present feature in the lives of our kids. From smartphones and iPads, to televisions and gaming consoles, screens offer entertainment, educational, and social opportunities. However, concerns about its impact on children's physical and mental well-being have increased, making it a great challenge to figure out how to regulate your child’s screen time effectively.
In this article, we not only explore 3 proposed approaches to screen time based on your child’s age, but also the do’s and don’ts of each approach for managing your child’s screen time. This may involve reflecting on your own habits, because interestingly, children will often copy their parents and siblings with how they approach screen time. We include the latest psychological research and practical strategies for dads on the benefits and risks of screen time, and tips for establishing healthy screen habits.
Unsurprisingly, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Additionally, benefits and downfalls vary based on age and screen content. However, with your help and role modeling, navigating screen time can not only improve your child’s health, but also their communication, boundary-setting, and self-regulation skills.
Three Possible Approaches
Approach #1: Children below 3 years of age: Minimize screen time
There is widespread agreement that infants and very young children benefit most from real-life social interaction, as opposed to using screens, especially in regards to their learning. One approach for these very young children is to ban all recreational screen use, especially if they are below 36 months of age. Studies have shown that high screen time in this age group precedes developmental difficulties in social and behavioral aspects, and that children below the age of 2 do not learn very well from technology (Pappas, 2020). They also do not seem to understand video chat unless an adult is there to model for them. Thus, it seems for this age group, the more face-to-face interactions, the better!
Approach #2: Children 3-5 years of age: 1 hour or less of screen time
A recommended daily screen time of less than 1 hour is recommended for this age group, but this is not always a realistic reflection of the actual screen usage of this population. Some dads may need to rely more on screen time as one of the few affordable options for entertainment, whether that is because they are working both outside and inside the home, or because they are dealing with their own exhaustion. An upside of screen usage during this age is that 3 to 5 year olds seem better able to learn from screens, so long as the educational program progresses at a slow and considerate pace, and they have an adult to co-watch with them and engage them in talking about the media content. (“Sesame Street,” “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” and “Super Why!” are some examples of successful educational children’s programs, citing improvements to pre-reading and emotional skills.)
Approach #3: Children 8-11 years of age, negotiate screen time
As children get older, you may ponder if you should continue to minimize their screen time or may even contemplate setting no limits, as screen time becomes much more normalized for older children. On the one hand, minimizing or micromanaging their screen time, or even completely banning screens may rob your kids of the opportunity to learn how to regulate themselves, and they can feel excluded and isolated from friends who have much more freedom in using technology. However, on the other end of the spectrum, allowing unlimited use of technology can lead to a much more sedentary lifestyle.
Researchers from the American Psychological Association recommend a mindful and interactive approach to screen time rules. Get your children involved! This can be a great opportunity to not only figure out what is best for your family, but also allow children to practice necessary boundary-setting, communication, and social skills.
Psychologists Lasser & Brooks have pioneered an approach to figure out screen time as a family. This is “Family Assessment of Screen Time” (FAST). FAST consists of each family member bringing up their feelings about what screen time would be best, and coming to a consensus that works for everyone. Coming to an agreement or compromise with others is not only a useful life skill that can start in the home, but it also can set an example for safe channels of communication between you and your children. The internet is still very loosely regulated and there is the risk of your child encountering content that they are not intended to see. Creating a safe space for them to discuss the media they view, starting with screen time agreements, can help when children run into difficult content.
Do’s and Don’ts
The older your children get, the less likely they may benefit from having extreme limits set on their screen time (whether that is unlimited screen usage, or no screen time at all). However, regularly exceeding the average daily recommendations for screen time is associated with lower cognitive test scores. At all ages, children benefit from having an adult to co-watch and discuss media content with, and this can help them engage with media more thoughtfully, as well as cancel out some of the negative effects of technology.
Whatever boundaries you and your child decide to set on screens, be sure to remain an active participant in their technological adventures, make sure they are still receiving the nourishment they need to grow, and keep tabs so they don’t access harmful sites! No matter how technologically advanced our society has become, to help them to live long, healthy lives, nothing can replace the benefits of sleep, time with you, exercise and fun, and a balanced diet for your kids.
Navigating the world of screen time regulation for children is undoubtedly a challenging task for any parent in the digital age. With screens permeating every aspect of our lives, finding the right balance is an ongoing process (and may involve negotiation). While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, considering the age of your child and the content they engage with can help in coming up with effective strategies. By adopting a mindful and interactive approach, modeling healthy habits, setting appropriate limits, and being actively involved in their screen experiences, dads can help children develop healthy screen habits and give them the tools necessary to navigate the digital world safely and free from harm.
Article: “What do we really know about kids and screens?” by Stephanie Pappas (2022), https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/cover-kids-screens
Book: “Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World” by Jon Lasser and Mike Brooks (2018)