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Published on March 30, 2017

How Much Screen Time is Too Much for Kids?

If you’ve ever witnessed a toddler pick up an iPad and figure out how it works almost instantaneously, you’ve met a “digital native.” Digital natives are children who were born after the explosion of new technology. They will grow up never knowing a world without the internet, computers and mobile devices. In short, the technology that some adults struggle with is second nature to them. 

Kids Screen TimeThe problem then becomes deciding how much time each day the littlest of our digital natives should be dedicating to screen time. It’s a tough question to answer, both for parents and doctors.

“Screen time adds up quickly when you consider computers used for homework, social media, texting, TV and video games,” said Steven A. Shapiro, DO, chair of the Pediatrics Department at Abington-Jefferson Health. “As with everything in life, moderation is important, and screen time should be balanced with other activities like play and exercise.”

The Official Guidelines from American Academy of Pediatrics

The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) recently adjusted their guidelines for screen time, which they define as time spent using digital media for entertainment purposes (not including homework). The general takeaway from the adjustment to the guidelines is that one size doesn’t fit all, and parents will need to use their judgement, especially for older kids.

The recommendations for screen time from the APA are:

  • Infants 18 months and younger: No screen time.
  • Children two to five years old: Limited to one hour per day.
  • Children six years and older: Parents should determine limits and monitor closely.

The first years of life are a critical time for healthy brain development, which is why the APA makes these recommendations for screen time limits. Activities like unstructured play and face-to-face interaction with parents and caregivers is much more beneficial to the developing brain than computer games and videos. Older children can benefit from certain types of screen time, such as programming that includes stories and music, but it should never replace reading, playing, or problem-solving activities in the real world.

Finding Balance with the 5-2-1-0 Rule

“In general, I suggest a simple principle that has merit in a lot of different areas of life,” said Dr. Shapiro. “It works well for regulating screen time, battling obesity, staying focused on homework assignments, and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.”

This principle is called the “5-2-1-0” rule, and it works to help parents provide guidelines for balance in their children’s lives. Here’s how it works:

5: Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Some younger kids can be picky eaters and focus on only one or two types of food, so even five slices of an apple is a good start.

2: Spend no more than two hours on screen time per day in general. This should include screen time both for entertainment and homework assignments. Children under 18 months should still avoid screens.

1: Get at least one hour of physical activity per day. This doesn’t mean you have to send your kid to the gym, but you should encourage them to get outside and run around or ride their bike.

0: Don’t drink anything that has carbohydrates. This includes soda and fruit juices, which are among the main culprits for weight gain and childhood obesity. Kids should drink water.

“Think of your children in a holistic way,” suggests Dr. Shapiro. “All aspects of their lives play an important role in their health. It’s about helping them find balance with nutrition, healthy brain development and exercise.”

To find an Abington-Jefferson Health pediatrician, call 215-481-MEDI.

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