New Guidelines for Tots and Technology

The American Academy of Pediatrics policies evolve
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For many years, the American Academy of Pediatrics had strict rules about screentime — no exposure for kids under age 2 and no more than two hours a day for preschoolers. Last December, the AAP abandoned those guidelines, acknowledging what parents already knew: Screens are everywhere.

One recent study, published in the Academy’s journal, "Pediatrics," found “nearly universal exposure” for children under age 2. Even under age 1, half of all babies interacted with a mobile device every single day, playing simple games, watching videos and fooling with apps. Academy policy makers concluded, “In a world in which ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete.”

The revised guidelines provide general advice, intended to guide parents as they make decisions about when to hand over a tablet or cellphone to a baby or toddler. Here are the guidelines:

Media is just another environment. Child development hasn’t changed. The AAP points out that kids do what they have always done but now they do much of it virtually. The most rapid period of brain development takes place before age 3, so infants and toddlers need a wide range of experiences, with and without technology, under the supervision of loving adults.

Parenting has not changed. Parents still have to make decisions about what’s good for a particular child in a particular situation. The video that makes one child giggle may overstimulate another child or the same child at a different time of day. Good parents respond flexibly to new situations and, most importantly, to each child.

Role-modeling is critical. Little kids imitate adults. Parents who want kids to have a healthy relationship with screens need to model self-control by setting limits for themselves.

We learn from each other. Young children learn most easily when they are interacting with people. Language, in particular, develops most readily during natural back-and-forth exchanges between babies and adults. According to some studies, lengthy passive exposure to media, such as videos, may actually inhibit language acquisition. On the other hand, technology that promotes interaction — video chatting with a family member, for example — may stimulate language and other kinds of learning.

Content matters. Rather than setting arbitrary limits on time spent with screens, the AAP recommends that parents think about everything a child does during the day. Is there plenty of time for being outdoors, moving around, reading books, singing songs, snuggling, being silly? Time with technology becomes a problem when it edges out other activities. 

Curation helps. Little children, in particular, deserve the highest quality products parents can find. Before downloading an app or firing up a video, check reviews from organizations like Parents’ Choice, Children’s Technology Review or Common Sense Media. Additional recommendations, include Zero to Three’s “Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight” and The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s “Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children Birth through Eight.”

Co-engagement counts. Children are more likely to benefit from screentime if adults are involved. Just talking about what a child is seeing or doing on a screen provides context and gives a small child a sense of connection.

Playtime is important. Unstructured playtime stimulates creativity and independence. Unplugged play is especially important for very young children because they learn from touching and manipulating objects in the three-dimensional world.

Set limits. As many adults know, technology can have a mesmerizing effect. Games, in particular, are often designed to encourage mindless swiping, and little kids — like everyone else — may find it difficult to disengage. Setting limits requires the same gentle but firm techniques parents use in other settings.

Create tech-free zones. Teach kids to power down during meals and at bedtime. Little children are more likely to adopt healthy eating habits if meals are a happy, social time with lots of playful interaction. At bedtime, research shows that light from screens can interfere with sleep cycles, so the AAP recommends keeping devices out of bedrooms. 

The world may be filled with screens, but this advice from AAP rings true: “Keep face-to-face up front and don’t let it get lost behind a stream of media and tech.”

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She will soon publish “Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart.” Learn more at