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How much screen time is too much for kids? Pediatricians weigh in with new guidelines

The Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen use of children ages 2 to 5 to an hour a day of high-quality programs.
The Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen use of children ages 2 to 5 to an hour a day of high-quality programs. Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you think navigating the digital world is dizzying, try being a parent monitoring the electronic screens of their children.

Skyping with grandparents may be great, but at what point do you step in with a child so mesmerized by the blue light of an iPad that they don't go outside?

The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on the topic Friday with a revised set of guidelines that advise setting boundaries, such as media-free dinner zones, "co-viewing" with young children, and discussions with older children about boundaries and respect when using social media.

For the first time, the academy is unveiling an online tool to help parents and children craft a family media plan. Children today are immersed in media, the academy admits, and parents need to take the role of a "media mentor."

Virginia Beach resident Erin Kandiyeli, mother of four, said the guidelines could help some families, but hers has been using common sense practices to balance screen time of children who range from 6 to 16. Dinner time is media free, for instance. So is outdoor play.

And the younger the family member, the more she and her husband monitor, such as when 6-year-old Brodie's iPad seems to capture him in an electronic bubble: "If it gets too all encompassing with him, and he's not interacting with the family, it's time to put it away."

Here are the basics the academy advises:

* Screen media should be avoided for children younger than 18 months, except for video-chatting with relatives. Parents of children 18 months to 2 years should choose high-quality programs, and watch them with their children.

* Limit screen use of children ages 2 to 5 to an hour a day of high-quality programs. Parents should watch with children to help them understand and apply the material to the world around them.

* For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure it doesn't interfere with sleep, going outside to play and other healthy behaviors.

* Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, like bedrooms.

* Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

What Michele Tryon, a community outreach coordinator for Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters, likes about the guidelines is they encourage families to come up with their own plan and acknowledge that each family is different and each child has different needs.

Her advice to parents is to talk with children about it, figure out what they are interested in, and get educated on what is available in the social media world.

And keep up! Because it's constantly changing.

A mistake some parents make is forbidding social media, electronic device and internet use.

"If we say no, that's the end of the conversation," Tryon said. "Children are going to be exposed to media, there's no question about it. So there has to be a balance. There are good things to be exposed to, but you may need to help them know when to unplug."

Parents of younger children need to be careful they're not using an electronic device to soothe them every time they get fussy, Tryon said: "You don't want to dismiss their need to connect with you face to face."

Screen time also should not replace playing in the real world with three-dimensional things like blocks and toys and the outdoors.

Having a good relationship with your children is also key when they get older and get in over their heads with a social media situation they may not recognize as wrong. When is text messaging a photo of a friend in a bikini crossing the line, for instance?

"You don't want to be ignorant or scared of social media," she said, "because then your child won't discuss it with you. Or if they think you're clueless, they can go around you."

Again, balance is important with older children, who also need face-to-face interactions to learn the social nuances of watching for facial expressions and listening to others, rather than just moving an avatar up to the next level in a video game.

Kandiyeli said her family hasn't had to have hard-and-fast time limits, because they're involved in sports like soccer and spend a lot of time together as a family. And she and her husband try to be good examples by not having their eyes glued to their smartphones when they're doing things together.

One rule they do have is their children can't delete the history of sites they've visited, and they need to let their parents know about new apps they're downloading. And this helps, too: "We know all their passwords."

Tryon said like so many things in parenting, it's about moderation: "There has to be a balance with real life. Children need to learn to navigate and cope with real time rather than always having instant gratification."

(c)2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) pilotonline.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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