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Managing Screen Time - Covid, Shelter-in-Place, and Beyond!

Research around screen time in children has demonstrated links to expressive language delays, inattention, poor academic performance, increased depressive symptoms, and obesity. Other studies have shown that children who are heavy viewers of television – watching four or more hours per day – have more trouble playing with other children in a positive, constructive way. The most aggressive of these children typically watch action shows and cartoons, which have extremely high rates of violence, but see little or no educational TV.

Despite these risks, television has the potential to do a lot of good. In measured doses it can stimulate imagination. Well-chosen, high-quality programs can introduce useful information about geography, cultural mythology, and history. Television can be helpful for children’s development in several ways, as long as the right programs are selected and viewing time is limited. When adults watch actively with children and talk about the shows’ content, the benefits appear even greater. The following guidelines can help facilitate appropriate television usage in your children as we are faced with shelter-in-place restrictions:

Setting the rules:

Rules should be consistently enforced. This means fairly firm rules around viewing times and circumstances, as well as the kinds of programs watched. This might mean watching only with a parent, integrating into the morning routine, or using as a reward for completing chores. A chart laying out the shows the child may watch along with their times can eliminate bargaining or confusion around rules. Television should not be used as “background” noise. Only turn on the TV if someone is actively watching. If older children watch TV, parents are advised to monitor their shows if younger children are around. Another important guideline is to not use TV as a substitute for another active, social, or educational experience such as reading or engaging in play with siblings. When a pattern of viewing is established in this way, viewing is structured and predictable, and children do not come to expect free access to television or use it as a space filler.

Time limits:

For the youngest child, a maximum of 30 minutes is plenty. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than one hour of screen time per day for children between the ages of 2 and 5. For children younger than 18 months, screen media should be avoided entirely with the exception of video-chatting with family and friends. For children ages 6 and up, the AAP recommends placing “consistent limits” on screen time.

Choosing the right program:

Parents of 2 and 3-year olds should look for programs with these features:

-a central adult figure conveying a sense of personal interest and concern to your child (such as Mister Rogers), with a warm and stable demeanor

-sufficient entertainment in terms of story material, opportunities for laughter, and demonstration of interesting sights or objects

-no frightening or dangerous scenes, or indication of punishment to children or animals

-the program should inspire imaginative play, for example, featuring characters the child way want to imitate

-distinction between fantasy and reality is made clear

Shows for older pre-schoolers:

-programs that tell well-known stories clearly. Fairy tales and adventures from history are good content for 4 and 5-year olds.

-realistic animal stories help develop feelings of love and warmth, as well as a sense of caretaking

-tales of misadventure (e.g. The Magic School Bus) provide enough tension to make a program exciting without being frightening

-fairly realistic cartoons that involve stories of groups of children who band together to deal with adventurous circumstances, to build or construct things, or to help others entertain young children while also pointing the way to constructive make-believe situations

-shows introducing children to new art forms – music, dance, or puppetry – can be stimulating and evoke lots of imaginative play

-family situation comedies are good to watch together. Parents are advised to preview these programs and avoid those that expose children to false values or emphasize affluent surroundings or unusually talented children

Viewing television programs together, when done appropriately, can be an active learning and social experience rather than a passive, numbing one. Point things out and ask questions to actively engage your child. Recommended programs include:

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Sesame Street

Barney & Friends




The Magic School Bus

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