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Parenting in the Real Digital World

The American Academy of Pediatrics issues new messages for parents on media use.

Steve Crane/Flickr
Source: Steve Crane/Flickr

This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics published new suggestions for parents on children’s media use (Brown et al., 2015). The AAP calls them “key messages” rather than formal guidelines, which will come out in 2016. As most parents know all too well, the existing AAP guidelines discourage all screen time for under-2s, and recommend a maximum of 2 hours of screen time a day for all other children and adolescents. This month’s report aptly acknowledges that those guidelines are outdated, given that “’screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time’.”

How many parents today follow the guidelines? Not many. In the U.S., 30% of babies are already interacting with some sort of digital device on a regular basis (, and 60% of babies and toddlers watch TV or videos for 1-2 hours a day (Barr et al., 2010). The U.S. is not special in this instance; these same patterns are evident in other Western countries. For instance, the Growing Up in New Zealand study of over 6500 families reported that by age 2, 79% of children were watching TV or videos on a regular basis (Morton et al., 2014). Why aren’t parents following these simple rules?

The AAP guidelines came out before tablets, smartphones, and social media popped into our lives, making parental control of screen time even more difficult. It seems that nearly every toddler knows where Mom and Dad’s smartphones and tablets are, how to get them, and how to use them.

So what are the new messages for parents? The report lists 12 key messages, which I’ve condensed here:

  • Parent your child in the digital world as you would in the real world. Media can have positive and negative effects. Know what your child is doing and with whom. Monitor your child, play with your child, and set limits in both real and digital environments.
  • Watch your own media use. You are a powerful role model for your child.
  • Interact directly with your child in the real and in the digital world. Talk and play with your child away from digital devices. When your child does engage with media, watch and play together as often as possible.
  • Media content is more important than the amount of time or the media delivery system. Monitor content carefully. Research educational apps – see Recognize that learning from media is really only possible after age 2.
  • Carve out tech-free times and zones for your family. Do not allow devices at mealtime, and charge devices outside your child’s bedroom overnight.
  • Teens need time online. Being online these days is important – the AAP says “integral” – for adolescent identity development and relationships.
  • Acknowledge that kids will make mistakes in their media use. When they do, react empathetically. View the incident as an opportunity to teach your child how to use media safely and wisely.

Are these messages useful for parents? My hunch is that they are flexible enough to work in today’s digital world as long as parents are being honest with themselves. Whereas it was pretty hard to convince yourself that your child was only in front of a screen 2 hours a day when you had the TV on constantly, it may be all too easy to convince yourself that you are treating media as “just another environment,” especially when most of the key messages acknowledge near-constant media use. For instance, what parent won’t follow the dictum to allow their teen time online, or acknowledge that children will make mistakes? The most directive message is to charge devices outside children’s rooms at night, which I predict will be a tough one for many parents to follow. In a large Australian study, over 70% of adolescents had 2 or more electronic devices in their bedrooms at night (Gamble et al., 2014). Given the destructive influence that screens have on sleep, and the critical role of sleep in children’s academic success and well-being (see Galland et al., 2015), I hope the AAP shapes this message into a clear guideline in 2016: DO NOT allow ANY devices in children’s and adolescents’ rooms overnight. If parents start this practice when their children are young, there is at least a hope of continuing it when that child becomes a teenager.

Parents, please chime in. Are these key messages useful? Will you be able to follow them? Will they keep our children safe?


Barr, R., Lauricella, A., Zack, E., & Calvert, S. L. (2010). Infant and early childhood exposure to adult-directed and child-directed television programming. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 56, 21-48.

Brown, A., Shifrin, D. L., & Hill, D. L. (2015). Beyond ‘turn it off’: How to advise families on media use. AAP News, 36(10).

Council on Communications and Media (2013). Children, adolescents, and the media. Pediatrics, 132, 958-961.

Galland, B., Spruyt, K., Dawes, P., McDowall, P. S., Elder, D., & Schaughency, E. (2015). Sleep disordered breathing and academic performance: A meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 136, DOI: 10.1542/peds.2015-1677

Gamble, A.L. et al. (2014). Adolescent sleep patterns and night-time technology use: Results of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Big Sleep Survey. PLoS ONE, 9: e111700. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111700

Morton, S.M.B., Atatoa Carr, P.E., Grant, C.C., Berry, S.D., Bandara, D.K., Mohal, J., Tricker, P. J., Ivory, V.C., Kingi, T.R., Liang, R., Perese, L.M., Peterson, E., Pryor, J.E., Reese, E., Waldie, K.E., & Wall, C.R. 2014. Growing Up in New Zealand: A longitudinal study of New Zealand children and their families. Now we are Two: Describing our first 1000 days. Auckland: Growing Up in New Zealand.