A woman sits with a young child and watches something on a laptop. The child is laughing.
Children ages 2 to 5 should use technology no more than an hour each day, and only when their parents are with them. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Pediatricians know there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to technology use for kids.

So when the American Academy of Pediatrics released its new recommendations for children’s media use, they also released a valuable tool to help parents navigate one of today’s biggest parenting challenges.

Called the Family Media Plan, it’s an interactive, online tool for families to create a personalized plan that works for their kids and their specific needs. It allows parents, working side-by-side with their kids, to designate screen-free zones and times, set up charging locations, choose recreational screen time content, choose activities for non-screen time and more.

If you’re looking for that magic answer for how much daily screen time is just right, the pediatrics academy is not offering that. While the academy previously set a general screen time limit of no more than two hours per day for kids over age 2, it has taken a more nuanced approach in the new recommendations.

“The previously existing guidelines were coming under criticism for not being realistic,” said William Stratbucker, MD, a pediatrician at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and director of the hospital’s Healthy Weight Center. “It made sense to update the guidelines to take into account the advancements of technology and to try to set more realistic expectations for parents.”

The new guidelines for children:

  • Younger than age 2: For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of on-screen media other than video-chatting. Parents who want to introduce digital media to children 18 to 24 months of age should choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children.
  • Ages 2 to 5 years: Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should watch media with their children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • Ages 6 and older: Place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, making sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other healthy behaviors.

The pediatrics academy identifies screen time as time spent using digital media for entertainment purposes. Other uses of media, such as online homework, don’t count as screen time.

The academy also recommends designating media-free times for the whole family, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms. It’s also recommended that families have ongoing conversations about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect—both online and offline.

Dr. Stratbucker urged families to talk often about media use in the house, with an aim to find a healthy balance.

In those talks, he encourages parents to consider four aspects of technology use: content, duration, timing and what the child is doing when not having screen time.

In the case of content, stay on top of what your kids are watching or doing with their screen time. He pointed out that many schools now rely on—and require—the use of technology for homework. In this case, content is likely not objectionable but duration might be.

“If parents feel the duration of technology time required is concerning, then that’s a conversation you need to have with your children and their teachers,” Dr. Stratbucker said.

Another example: the new guidelines’ openness to even the youngest of children using video-chatting with long-distance family members.

“There are some incredibly awesome opportunities now, like linking grandparents in to see their grandchild walking for the first time,” the doctor said. “While the previous recommendations talked about limiting time or duration, they didn’t speak at all to the content being watched. So parents would think, ‘You mean my parents can’t watch my child’s first steps on Facetime?’ Well, of course they can. That’s not the issue.”

Two of Dr. Stratbucker’s biggest concerns with media use is the extent to which it’s interfering with kids getting enough sleep and exercise.

“As it relates to a healthy lifestyle, you can’t just isolate screen time,” he said. “What else is your child doing with his time? Do you have any time for your child to be active? Is he getting enough sleep? Screen time needs to be taken in context with the rest of their life.”

The most common pitfall he sees is kids exchanging sleep for media use.

“Is your child delaying falling asleep because they’re on their phone? Are they waking up in the middle of the night because someone texted them? Are they rising early so they can get back to their phones before school?” he said.

For those reasons, he recommends children’s bedrooms be screen-free zones at any age.

Kim Delafuente, community exercise educator with Spectrum Health Healthier Communities, said children need one hour per day of physical activity that gets their heart pumping. Depending on their age, they also need 8 to 12 hours of sleep each night.

“When you start factoring in the hours they’re in school and doing homework, then there’s not a lot of time left,” she said.

As a tool to help parents balance their child’s day, Spectrum Health offers Healthy Counts, the Healthy Weight Center’s nine tips supported by all health educators at Spectrum Health:

  • Eight hours of sleep or more each night
  • Seven breakfasts a week
  • Six home-cooked meals a week
  • Five servings of fruits and vegetables a day
  • Four positive self-messages a day
  • Three servings of low-fat dairy a day
  • Two hours maximum of screen time a day
  • One hour or more of physical activity a day
  • Zero sugary drinks a day

Younger children also need movement and unstructured play, or what Delafuente calls “just letting them move and be kids.” It’s a key ingredient to their brain development.

Parents of young children sometimes think they need to let their kids use technology so they’ll perform better in school in their later years, Delafuente said.

But it’s not going to help. Children will still pick up technology intuitively at a later age.

Perhaps the hardest lesson for parents is to learn their role in modeling positive media use for their children, Dr. Stratbucker said.

“The most important teacher in children’s lives are their parents or adult caregivers,” he said. “So they are going to develop their relationship with screens based on what they see their parents doing.

“If parents are texting in the car, they are going to text in the car,” he said. “If parents look at their phone the moment it beeps to see who’s texting them, children are going to do that.”