Screen time has been a parenting issue ever since the invention of the television, but today's parents face fresh challenges from new technologies.
"The screens have really changed in the last few years, and increasingly, they're digital media screens: phones, computers and tablets," says James Steyer, author of "Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age" (Scribner). "The watershed change in parenting in the digital age has occurred in the last five years, and parents generally didn't grow up with those devices, so that's a challenge too. In some ways, it's easier to set rules for TV and movies, because we at least know about them."
We asked Steyer, founder of the nonpartisan organization Common Sense Media, how to handle the onslaught. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Do you have any general recommendations for parents?
A: Set limits on screen time. That's absolutely critical. Depending on the age of your kid and the nature of your family, the limits can vary. The key is to set clear limits and stick to them, because screen time, whether it's a computer or a TV set or a cellphone or a video game player, the cumulative amount actually matters. If you look at my book, you'll notice that I talked about screen time for almost every age group, even though the amount of screen time a 3-year-old is involved in is probably less than you'd let a 10-year-old, and the screen might be different.
Q: What about the youngest kids?
A: The American Academy of Pediatrics is very concerned about screen time for the zero-to-2 age range, and essentially recommends zero screen time, because of brain development issues.
Q: The limit for older kids is two hours of screen time?
A: I, in general, would recommend that. But let's say there's a great (football) game on — the kid's going to watch that, so that's more than three hours. I'm going to watch that game. But I think (two hours) is a very good rule of thumb.
Q: What do you do if your kid is in that 7 to 8 age range, and wants to join the (social network) Club Penguin?
A: You want to think long and hard about social networks when it comes to younger kids. Social networks are particularly impactful in terms of social, emotional and cognitive development. Club Penguin, though, is carefully controlled by the Disney people. So the issues I would be aware of on Club Penguin — screen time is always an issue. Some of the games they play may be inappropriate; you want to check out the content of the games they want to play. And you don't want your kid to be marketed to all the time. But I think for the most part Club Penguin has done a pretty good job. I'm not worried about (my 8-year-old) being on Club Penguin.
Q: What about online games?
A: They can be addicting, and they can keep you from playing outside or doing your homework.
Q: What if my kid is 12 and wants to join Facebook?
A: The answer, for me, is no. I actually think the best age is around 15 ... because of social, emotional and cognitive development. There's obviously a lot of 13-year-olds on there, and increasingly you have kids who are under the age of 13 and (they) should be gone. The issue goes from social and emotional issues that kids encounter, where they're encouraged to share — to over-share — to the fact that kids often self-reveal before they self-reflect. That has privacy implications.
Q: What about the older teen spending too much time on video games?
A: Even a moderately observant parent can see how much time their kid is spending playing video games; it becomes pretty obvious. The way you eliminate (a problem) is by turning it off — or by taking away the game machine or the controls. I'm very serious. The simplest solution is to take it away: Enforce timeouts.