American children aged between eight and 18 spend an average of seven hours a day staring at a screen, a 2010 report found. Television, computers, tablets and smartphones have taken over many of our kids' lives.
What are your children doing right now? Do you know how much time they really spend on internet-connected devices — and what they really do online?
An influential group of pediatricians warns parents about the impact of constant entertainment media use, and has some advice on responsible internet use.
Growing Up In The Digital Age
Research shows that too much screen time can have rather diverse consequences, from physical inactivity and obesity to concentration problems and sleeping difficulties. Unless you are living in a cave, you don't need a study to tell you about the dangers of unchecked internet access though — cyber bullying, pornography, internet predators and violent games are a very real danger.
Dr Victor Strasburger, the lead author of the new American Academy of Pediatrics policy on children and entertainment media, puts it rather bluntly.
He says many parents are "clueless" about the huge impact too much media exposure can have on their kids, and adds: "This is the 21st century and they need to get with it".
The new policy was presented on October 28 at the AAP National Conference and Exhibition in Orlando with the message that "the digital age is the ideal time to change the way we address media use".
The internet isn't going anywhere, and it offers a world of opportunity as well as some dangers. Web-connected devices aren't dangerous by themselves, but kids definitely need their parents' guidance to use them in a positive manner.
What can you do to ensure that television and the internet are useful tools in your child's life rather than a dangerous obsession? The AAP has some important thoughts on that. Common sense will take care of the rest.
Pediatricians Say The Internet Ain't All Bad
The AAP acknowledges that the internet can be a great tool that can be used to learn facts. It can also be used to learn things well beyond the material elementary and high school kids are offered at school, and we're not just talking about fantastic online courses like the ones offered at Coursera or Stanford either.
Parents don't have to worry that pediatricians want them to throw their computers away or even that they're hoping you'll limit your kids' computer use to educational activities. The internet is fine, the AAP says, but it does want you to know how much time your kids are spending with media, what they are viewing, and how they can stay safe.
Screen Time — How Much, And Where?
The AAP already had recommendations on the use of televisions for kids. Their new policy includes all internet-connected devices. The advice is to keep children under two away from screens altogether.
Older kids and teens shouldn't use media for entertainment more than two hours a day — note that this recommendation does not apply to homework or educational activities.
Where should kids use those two hours or less of screen time? Not in their bedroom, but in a public space that is monitored by parents or care-givers. Strasburger said: "I guarantee you that if you have a 14-year-old boy and he has an Internet connection in his bedroom, he is looking at pornography."
You can prevent your kids from accessing the internet when you don't want them to with a simple step: turning your router off. The AAP is encouraging parents to model healthy internet use themselves by modeling effective "media diets", and that could mean you need to cut down on your own media consumption too.
Having frequent and open discussions about internet use is the other key to responsible media consumption for your kids. Discuss your values with your children, the AAP says, and co-view the content your kids are interested in.