Kids use media a third of their day; parents adapt how they monitor screen time

SEATTLE -- Does it ever feel like you have a spare family member? These days screens can feel a lot like that, maybe even the unwanted house guest, who never leaves. They’re in every room, every social situation. And although being constantly plugged in is an adjustment for some, it’s second nature for your kids.

For that reason, screen time is a parenting hurdle that isn’t going away, so rather than putting limits on it, parents are figuring out how to make it beneficial for their family.

“I do like to play Kinect,” said Kristen West, mother of three, as she plays Xbox with her two oldest. “It’s really, really fun. And Bennett gets into it too, so we all have some fun together.”

Although, West admits she isn’t a gamer, she is doing exactly what Dr. Dimitri Christakis of Seattle Children’s Research Institute say parents should do, be a part of your kids’ screen time.

“The truth is that the interactivity is a game changer,” said Dr. Christakis. “We know that level of engagement really does promote learning.”

And this learning is important. Especially after recent reports from Common Sense Media revealed teens and tweens spend six to nine hours per day on screens, a third of their day. And that doesn’t include time at school or doing homework.

Since this screen time is clearly not going away, doctors are changing their focus when advising parents how to manage this time.

Dr. Christakis outlines 5 ways parents can make screen time work for your family:


To ensure that your kids are getting value out of the time they spend with a screen, parents need to be picky about what they let in their home.

“Many households have rules about how much time children are on screens, but very few households have rules about what children are doing on screens,” said Dr. Christakis. “And that’s really the most important question, because it’s all about the content.”

West said her 11-year-old son came to her recently, wanting to buy a new video game. She admits she is unsure about the game, but since her son has been persistent, she and her husband are taking some extra steps for scrutiny.

“We’re in the process of figuring out where we can rent this game, so maybe Gavin and I can play it, and see how we feel about it.”

Set limits

Setting limits isn’t a new idea, but Dr. Christakis recommends looking at it a different way. The American Academy of Pediatricians has historically recommended kids should only use screens for one to two hours a day. These new numbers from Common Sense Media prove that the atmosphere is changing. Now Dr. Christakis suggests that time be spent playing without the gadgets.

“Make sure they’re unplugged for at least one to two hours a day.”

Digital curfew

Dr. Christakis says screen time should stop at least an hour before bedtime. The light from screens suppresses melatonin, key to helping us sleep.

“If your child has a phone near them at bedtime, they’re always going to be wondering if they’re going to get that text or that Facebook like. And in fact, they often will, so that phone will buzz, it will prompt them to go and check it, maybe respond, and the cycle repeats itself.”

Think of what is being displaced

There are aspects of screen time that can bring real benefit to a family and that is why doctors say not all screen time should be treated equally. Having cell phones at the dinner table will take away from family conversation, but letting a child use a tablet on a long flight, may distract from tantrums or kicking the passenger’s seat in front of you. That’s why Dr. Christakis says it is important to evaluate what screen time is displacing.

West says she uses PBS shows for her preschooler when she has to catch up with a little work at home, but doesn’t feel guilty about it, because her focus is still on what they will do together after the work is done.

“When I need to work, guess what I do, I turn on the TV,” said West. “But instead of thinking, ‘ahhh, I’m such a horrible mom,’ I’m thinking, ‘okay, what am I going to do next. Are we going to build a fort? Are we going to go out?’”

Be a good example

Do you check your phone every few minutes? Are you plugged in at all times, even when you are playing with your kids at the park or sitting down to eat dinner as a family?

“They’re getting the message that this is normative,” said Dr. Christakis about kids seeing this from their parents. “This is what adults do and this is what adults that I admire do... And your tween and teen are savvy enough to point out your hypocrisy.”

By being a good example, doctors say it is easier to talk to kids about the “house” rules when it comes to media.

West says this is how they are making the decision about her son’s desire for a new videogame, as a family.

“We told him we love him and want the very best for him. So if we don’t get him this game, it’s because maybe it’s not the best thing for him.”

Dr. Christakis says even with the best intentions, kids will push back, but you make the final call.

“You pick your battles, selectively, and then you win them,” said Dr. Christakis. “The rules that you put around your child’s media, aren’t necessarily the rules that your child’s friends have around media. They have to be what’s important to you. You have to make the rules very clear, and then you have to stick with them.”

Sarah Lytle of the University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences recommends parents use Common Sense Media as a resource for selecting content and putting limits on screen time in your home.