Advice for parents about kids and screen time

'The Art of Screen Time' author answers our questions about how to navigate the digital age with children
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 01/30/2018 at 9:00 AM EDT

Many parents struggle with how to handle screen time for their family. Thankfully, Anya Kamenetz’s The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Lifeout today!—is an evidence-based guide of how to have a happy family life and raise healthy, successful kids in an age of constant (dis)connectedness.

In anticipation of the book’s release, we asked for your best question, and you certainly delivered! Here, Anya gives us the answers for navigating screen time and family life.

How do you propose limiting screen time for young children when it’s always around? I’m getting a little freaked out that my 6-month-old had started going for our phones alreadybut it’s not realistic to try to give them a phone-free world. I really want to give him a chance to stay a kid and learn through play, but it’s tough to avoid some kind of screen. Elizabeth N.

Anya Kamenetz: I am right there with you—my 14-month-old loves to grab my phone. And that is my signal to put the phone away. I have to make a concerted effort to keep the phone out of sight when we are playing together, and to try to focus on her. As a working parent, the time I have with my kids is limited, so this is a priority for me. In the book I talk about cultivating your children’s ability to play independently. When she is absorbed in a toy or activity, that is when I quickly check my phone to text my husband, look at work email or check the weather.

We hear a lot about the two hours of screen time a day limit. How does active versus passive screen time play into that? If my kiddo is playing Minecraft, he seems to be actively participating in an activity that is challenging and provides healthy stimulation. If he is watching videos on YouTube of other kids playing Minecraft, not so much. Is it important to differentiate between the types of screen time? —Marney T.

This is a great observation. As a matter of fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts are shifting recommendations away from time and more to what kids are doing with the screens. It’s important to balance screen time with other activities including outside time, reading, and face to face time with family and friends. It’s really important not to let screens interfere with sleep and a healthy bedtime, too.

But hard and fast limits may be less important than encouraging active, creative uses of tech and media. A final ingredient in the recipe for healthy screen time is joint engagement. It’s a good idea for you to be on the couch with your kids some of the time they are using media, to help them understand what they’re seeing and so you can understand what they are getting out of it.  

RELATED: I gave my toddler an iPhone—and created a monster

How do we work on dealing with kids and screen time when we can’t even get parents off their own phones in the first place?

The entire second half of my book is about parents and screens. First we have to acknowledge that parents, especially working parents, are by definition trying to get a lot done. There are huge pressures on us and the phone can be our crucial tool for multitasking, but it’s also a huge source of anxiety and stress. Our kids are watching, learning and imprinting on what we’re doing.

My hope is that without guilt or judgment, we can tap into our highest values as parents to find a better balance—and also, by the way, call on the tech companies to build more ethical technologies that don’t lead to such compulsive use. Also, my number one and two tips that worked for me: Turn off your notifications and charge your phone outside the bedroom.

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