Media and technology guide for families, part 1

Creating a media plan for your household

July 17, 2020

By Jennifer Fossenbell

School’s out for summer! The kids are home — or should we say, are still home? In 2020, parents and caretakers have been leaning more heavily on technology than ever before to educate, entertain and occupy their kids in the home. 

There’s no shortage of “easy” technology options out there to keep kids busy — from games to edutainment apps to video messaging apps to cartoons and shows on streaming services — but not all screen time is created equal. When you start digging, you will uncover the good, the bad and the ugly of children’s apps in equal measure. So how do you know which is which?

Some parents may fall on the “limit screen time as much as possible” side of the fence, while others might be more on the “give them anything to keep them out of my hair for an hour” side. But no matter where you fall, in today’s world, technology is increasingly a part of our lives at every age. In fact, one consumer report found that kids aged 4 to 14 have, on average, 11 electronic media devices in their home. 

So let’s face it — most kids are going to spend some of their time looking at screens. As parents and caretakers, we want to make informed decisions to help them get the most out of that time with fun and enriching content. We can achieve that by creating a media plan, or a set of guidelines for the whole family around screen time and media consumption.

Why your family needs a media plan

One study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that fewer than one-third of 8- to 18-year-olds reported having rules about what TV shows they can watch or video games they can play. And the number of kids who said they have rules about what they can do on the computer isn’t much higher at only 36%. Parental involvement is key to ensuring kids are getting the best out of technology with the least harm.

The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests working together to come up with a family media plan to create rules around screen time and electronic devices, as well as family time, outdoor activities, and sleep. They also recommend watching media together with kids and discussing what you see — placing caregivers in the role of “media mentors” by modeling healthy media use.

Children mimic what adults do, so it’s important to be aware of how much you use your phone or tablet while your 2-year old watches. The more you (or an older sibling or other caretaker) fiddle with a device, the more your youngest family members will want to do the same. 

Tech expert and author Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, M.D. likewise emphasizes the importance of talking with children about what they view and finding ways to experience it together. And the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) points to the power of positive modeling when it comes to technology use. They suggest deciding as a family on some media-free times that you spend together, where both parents and kids put away their devices, such as during meals. Or you can designate media-free zones in the home, such as in certain bedrooms or in a living room, where you spend time together playing boardgames, reading, listening to music or just chatting.

Supervision is key

The importance of parental monitoring has been highlighted by stories revealing how much nefarious content is buried in supposedly kid-friendly videos on YouTube. There are few controls on what is published on public sites like this, not to mention comment threads that contain foul language and threats that kids who can read can easily stumble into. Even YouTube Kids, marketed expressly for children, has become the unknowing host of harmful content planted in the middle of seemingly cute, kiddie-friendly videos. The lesson? Any app that allows users to search a library of public-generated content is best used under very close supervision. No bot or parental control (though these are useful as well) can take the place of a caretaker’s watchful eye.

Speaking of parental controls, there is no shortage of options to help you keep track of how your kids use their time on devices, and to place restrictions on what they can access. Run through a handy checklist specific to your child’s age to ensure you’re thinking about the most important security and safety measures at every stage of development.

How much screen time is okay?

If you’ve ever watched a toddler pick up a smartphone, you know that it doesn’t take them long to figure out the basics of swiping and tapping. For this reason, phones and tablets are an easy solution to engage children from babies on up. But be intentional about the devices you hand over to your little ones, or you may end up competing to use your own phone! 

A 2017 study revealed that children eight and under spend an average of more than two hours a day using screen media, though the AAP recommends limiting screen time for kids ages 2 to 5 to just one hour per day. 

The latest AAP recommendations differ by age range due to dramatically different cognitive and developmental needs. They offer specific information for babies and toddlers and for school-age kids and teenagers.

  • 18 months and under: Use screens only for video-chatting with friends or relatives
  • 18 to 24 months: Limited amount of high-quality TV or videos (watch with your child)
  • 2 to 5 years: 1 hour per day of high-quality programs (best to watch together)
  • 6 and over:  Set consistent limits on time spent and types of media; monitor closely to ensure media doesn’t interfere with sleep, physical activity or social interaction 

Media is here to stay. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of educational and quality resources for children (for some recommendations, check out part 2 of our media and technology guide for families!). But even with the best programming, you can have too much of a good thing. Teaching your children how to use media in a healthy way begins with you. By following these principles, you’ll help your kids develop healthy media habits and be sure to carve out quality, screen-free family time.


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