August 19, 2014

Screen Limits and Young Children—Location, Location, Location!*

April Khadijah Inniss, MD, MSc
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar, 2012-2014
Clinical Lecturer
University of Michigan
Department of Pediatrics & Communicable Diseases

Given rapid changes in the media landscape with newer technologies like tablets and smartphones, limiting young children’s entertainment screen time remains a challenge—and not just for parents, but for the pediatricians charged with assessing children’s exposure and counseling families.

In 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued guidelines discouraging any screen time for children less than two years of age, and no more than two hours daily for older children.  In 2013, the AAP released updated recommendations that reaffirmed the principles in the 2010 guideline, and offered practical ways families can manage media use, such as keeping media devices out of children’s bedrooms, and keeping family routines like mealtime screen-free.

To understand parents’ attitudes and behaviors in relation to these recommendations, the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health surveyed a national sample of 560 parents with young children (1-5 years old).

Some of our findings weren’t surprising at all—many kids are still getting too much screen time (25% of parents surveyed reported average daily screen time of 3 or more hours for their young children).  However, a couple key findings stood out to our research team because they seem to hold the most practical application to how we counsel our young patients’ families. 

More parents are limiting screen time by location, rather than time. Parents reported the strategies they are already using to limit entertainment screen time.  About one-half (53%) of parents of young children limit the locations where children can use media devices (i.e., not in their bedrooms or at mealtimes). About one-quarter (28%) of parents report having a combination of location limits and time limits (Figure 1).  Only 6% of parents report limiting the amount of screen time for their children by setting a daily time limit.

So, while the AAP speaks of screen time limits in terms of hours, we 
found that most of the parents that we surveyed are thinking more about limits in terms of location—suggesting that this approach may be more practical than watching the clock!  

Parents’ views about reasonable screen time differ by the age of their children, and do not necessarily match the AAP recommendations. Among parents of children younger than two years old, only 12% think that no entertainment screen time is reasonable.  In contrast, among parents of children 2-5 years old, 88% say that two hours or less of daily entertainment screen time is reasonable. 
This finding suggests that targeting parents of children under 2 years of age should be a major priority for education about potential adverse effects of too much screen time.
In sum, I think most of us in Pediatrics have observed how quickly new devices are emerging and evolving, and how entertainment screen time is therefore playing a progressively larger role in our young patients’ daily lives.  We know that parents ultimately want to do what’s best for their children, but many still struggle in the area of limiting entertainment screen time.

Based on these findings, perhaps we can better assist these families in the following ways: 1) intentionally targeting families sooner (specifically those caring for children 0-2 years of age) with education and other practical tools to keep their young ones engaged, and 2) counseling families vis-à-vis strategies other parents just like them are using to limit screen time (i.e. emphasizing things like screen-free bedrooms and mealtimes).

*All findings reported here are statistically significant (p < 0.05).  Only some findings are presented here; full manuscript is in preparation highlighting other findings will be submitted for peer-reviewed publication.