How much media is too much? Decoding the New AAP Guidelines

By Warren Buckleitner

No screens 1 hour before bedtime, and remove devices from bedrooms before bed.” From the AAP’s new guidelines.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics finally updated its recommendations on children and media, and it’s filled up my “children and technology” news alerts. 

The sternly worded report is less restrictive than the previous “no screens” position, but (unfortunately) does a poor job distinguishing between linear (passive) and non-linear (interactive) media. It offers no examples of “good” media beyond those with a research backing, namely PBS kids and Sesame street and threatens that careless exposure can lead to attention problems, sleeping and/or eating disorders and obesity. 

The main message? “Media is bad and be afraid” unless used in small carefully scheduled doses. One good example of good media use? Skyping with a loved one.  

Why the AAP Guidelines are a Recipe for a Power Struggle 

The downside of the report is that busy parents may interpret these guidelines as out of reach (along with “floss every day”) or an attempt to turn their home into power struggle. 

For example, in one of the resulting articles (Overwhelmed: How to keep your children from overusing technology from 12NewsNow.com) tells the story of six year old Presley Stavinoha.

“Too much screen time is definitely a thing,” said Presley’s mother, Nicole Stavinoha. “She wanted to watch the TV and use the iPad at the same time and we had to create some boundaries for her….It is a privilege. And the iPad is usually the first thing that we take away.” But when that happens, Presley admits she will search the house for the iPad while her parents sleep. http://bitly.com/2fdvIYd

Three Principles Instead of One Prescription  

In the spirit of preventing hundred of other young children from roaming the house at night looking for their hidden iPads, I offer the following. 

First, recognize that the best way to capture a child’s interest in something is to tell them it’s forbidden. Getting between a determined child and something they love can be treacherous space. 

Rather than trying to sketch out an exact prescription for media use, instead focus on three general ideas as you integrate technology into your child’s daily routine:  Access, Balance and Support. 

The AAP offers some nifty time planning tools

A is for access. Children won’t gain technology competence and learn self control if they can’t use it. Libraries and schools should provide access to children who do not have the technology at home. By playing or fiddling around with digital cameras, downloading apps, using laptops, and playing video game systems, they will figure out how to wiggle a connection to make something work, find a wi-fi signal to avoid roaming charges, or get a song from a CD to a file. By the time they reach middle school, they will be bilingual, fluent in both Windows and Mac, and they can pick up a Kindle or an iPad with no hesitation. But Access alone is not enough. 

B is for balance. Just as a healthy diet consists of a variety of foods, a child needs the right mix of concrete and abstract, real and pretend. Screens tend to be abstract and symbolic, so screen time should be balanced with real and concrete activities. 

This can be easier said than done when a child is immersed in a digital game or app. There’s an art to knowing when to set a limit or when to play along. You might take your child camping in a state park in the summer, but rather than leave your iPad behind, you could use the Star Walk app to find stars or use the camera to capture the sunset. The screen can make a pretty good night light too, but no app can replace the charm of singing songs around a supervised, screen free campfire. 

S is for support. Left on their own, children won’t be able to get access to technology and achieve balance. They need an adult to tune into their abilities and interests. Support can come in the form of friends, siblings, parents, grandparents, librarians, and teachers, who might serve as technology role models, bedtime story readers, app curators, and helpers for reaching those hard game levels.

If you can create your ABS formula while your children are young, it increases the chance that a child will be able to record and edit a video for a class project, best their parent’s score in Super Mario Bros., program a sprite in Scratch, find and download a calculus app, use online banking, post prom… and eventually wedding pictures.  

Three Suggestions for Setting Media Limits

Before shutting down the tablet in frustration when a child appears to be a digital zombie, take time to understand what’s going on.  Start by watching. Observe the rhythm of the child’s play so you understand what the child is thinking about. Now play along. You might play along or ask what is going on. Consider these helpful tips for setting limits:

1. Give advance notice that the time is almost up, and follow through. You might say, “In five minutes we are going for a walk.” Use a countdown timer app so the child can visualize the time remaining. Be aware that if you give a warning but don’t stick to it, the credibility of your words fade.

2. Put the time limit into the context of the activity children are immersed in. Rather than saying “no more than one hour.” Tell them they have time for two more puzzles, one more level, or one last picture. 

3. Let the child’s finger (not yours) control the “off” button.  Giving children control over making the experience end can help them more peacefully accept the consequences. This button might be the power button on a remote, the pause option on a video game, or the home button on an iPad. This gives children the active role in ending the activity and somehow helps them internalize — and accept–  the process. When the screen image disappears, it is almost magical how you get the child to interact with you again. 

These techniques have served me well in both classroom and home settings. Rather than fight a child’s intense interest in something, try to work with it and see where it can take you. As my horseback riding instructer once told me, it’s wise to ride the horse in the direction it’s going, whenever possible.  

The New AAP Guidelines at a glance

For birth to 18 months: Avoid all screen media, other than video-chatting. 

For 18 months to age two: Choose “high-quality programming,” and watch it with your children to help them understand what they’re seeing. No time limit is given but one can assume it is less than one hour. 

From two to five years: No more than one hour of high quality “screen time” per day. Co-view all media to help children understand what they are seeing. 

For ages six and older: make a plan. Place consistent limits on media time, and make sure it doesn’t impose on sleep, diet or physical activity.


• Designate media-free times such as dinner or driving, and media-free locations in the home. Especially avoid screens at night. 

• Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety. 

• There’s a new web based family media planning tool is innovative and useful. www.HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan

How much media is too much? Decoding the New AAP Guidelines, pp.4-5. Buckleitner, W. (November 2016 Volume 24, No. 11, Issue 200)

How to keep your children from overusing technology,  Melissa Correa, KXTV 8:25 AM. PDT October 31, 2016

AAP’s Media and Children Toolkit

Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8

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