Kids are back to school! For many families that means back to in-person classrooms, though for others (more than ever, in fact) it might mean homeschool or something in between. Though the early fall hasn't been easy, for many families, this feels something closer to "normal" compared to the craziness of year’s largely online school. Even so, the potentially negative impact of excessive screen time on children remains a major concern for most parents no matter the learning format; in recent years screens have become a permanent part of virtually every schooling environment. A 2018 report from the Pew Research Center found that 54% of U.S. teens say they spend too much time on their phones, and two-thirds of parents express concern over their teen's screen time.
So what are current guidelines? And how can parents help their children balance healthy amounts of screen time with the requirements of being back in school?
The Need-To-Know On Screen Time
While you might be wishing for just a simple number or calculation, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has actually moved away from specific screen time recommendations in children over the age of 5. Instead, they recommend focusing on the positive things children need: 8-12 hours of quality sleep per night, one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, and time away from screens. This is because it is extremely difficult to monitor exact screen time, and the larger concern is that screen time often displaces other important healthy activities.
However, parents of middle and high school children will know that going back to school brings homework, which often requires a screen. The below statistics are eye-opening in this regard:
> One 2015 report from the National Center for Educational Statistics found that 80% of 8th graders report using screen time to complete homework
> A 2018 Pew Research Center report found that 56% of 8th graders use a computer to do homework on a daily basis. I
> In 2019, Common Sense Media reported that teens spent an average of 41 minutes per day on the computer doing homework(an increase of 12 minutes from 2015).
All Screen Time May Not Be Created Equal
But are all kinds of screen time the same? One study suggests that while increasing screen time (especially on social media or passive screen time such as watching TV) negatively affected children’s physical health, socio-emotional outcomes, and school achievement, educational screen time (such as homework on a computer) actually improved school achievement and did not have a negative impact. More research is needed, but this suggests that parents shouldn’t worry quite as much about screen time related to homework.
Finding the Right Family Screen Time Balance
So how can parents juggle screen time and back to school? Prioritize the things kids need most, and screen time will fall into place. While it's tempting for parents to lock in on a specific rule or limit for screen time, the best approach is to focus on the right priorities to guide your kids' time and attention. Some great places to start include:
1) Make sure your child is getting great sleep. Healthy sleep patterns include a bedtime routine without screens, and no access to screens during sleeping hours. Healthy sleep supports all components of your child's health!
2) Focus on making exercise a daily priority. One hour of activity a day is best for kids, meaning time away from electronic devices. Outdoor activity is especially helpful for mental and physical health. This goes for parents too!
3) Be intentional about the use of screens for homework. Do as much homework as possible off-screen, and make sure homework doesn't spiral into additional activities on-screen.
4) Spend regular time as a family unit without screens. This means parents too! This might be family dinner, a Saturday hike, or a board game night. It's important to have connection time together!
If, after those healthy activities are completed, there’s still time for other screen activities, that’s great! The potential danger from screen time comes far more from the exclusion of more important activities than from the exact count of screen hours itself, so you, and your kids, can enjoy your well-earned rest.
If you want help breaking down more specifically how to structure your kid’s screen time, you can use the AAP’s helpful planner here.
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Laura Vanston is a pediatric nurse practitioner with a doctorate of nursing practice, and owner of Inspire Pediatrics, a Colorado-based virtual care and parent education service. Laura is passionate about providing well-researched perspectives that empower parents to make educated healthcare decisions for their families. She also provides convenient telehealth options in Colorado, so parents can navigate many childhood illnesses and concerns from the comfort of their own home. Follow her on Instagram at @inspirepediatrics or visit Inspire Pediatrics to learn more!