The 5 pieces of advice I’d give about screens if parents ever asked

McCarthyClaire_201108_047The explosion of tech and screens into the lives of children is outrageously obvious to me as a pediatrician. Besides the fact that most kids and parents seem to be attached to a phone or tablet when I enter the exam room, when I ask questions about how kids spend their days (and nights), screens seem to be part of everything.

You’d think that I’d get questions from parents about screen time and about how best to use devices with their kids. But I don’t. Like, never.

This is weird, because I feel like I get asked about everything else that touches a child or is part of a child’s life. I think I have been asked every possible question about food, sleep, toys, school, after-school activities, playgroups, strollers, summer camps, shoes, coats, soaps, pajamas… I’m not kidding; I get asked about everything.

But not screens. I used to get asked about when kids should get a cell phone, but I don’t even get that question anymore.

I figure that there are three possible reasons. It could be that screens are so commonplace that people don’t think to ask about them. It’s certainly true that they are becoming ubiquitous; currently two-thirds of US adults have a smartphone, a proportion which has nearly doubled since 2011.

Yeah, but shoes are even more ubiquitous and I get questions about those. So maybe not.

It could also be that parents feel like they know everything there is to know and don’t need my advice. I think that’s probably the case for some parents — although given how new some of this technology is, I am impressed with their knowledge.

I think that the most likely reason is that parents are afraid of what I’ll say. They think that I will tell them to turn off all the screens or take the screens away from their kids. And that would be such a drag, right? Because let’s face it, screens are pretty great. Besides the fact that smartphones, tablets, computers and other devices are remarkably useful, they are remarkably entertaining, too. And we all know that happy kids make for happy parents.

I can understand this hesitation. After all, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children “engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day,” and that children under the age of 2 not spend any time with screens at all. These days most children spend many more than two hours in front of a screen, and as for the under-2 recommendation, that’s not getting routinely followed, either. We pediatricians talk a lot about risks of obesity, behavioral problems and school problems related to screen time — and there’s research to back up what we say. Yup, I can understand why parents don’t want to ask.

But it’s too bad that people don’t ask, because what I would say (and what I do say whenever I can get people to listen) is pretty simple and straightforward — and doesn’t involve taking away any devices.

1. Be thoughtful about what you let your kids do with them.

Truly, what kids do while on devices is just as important as how much time they spend with them, and sometimes more so. Choose TV shows, movies and apps carefully — playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush all day is hardly a good use of anyone’s time, and playing violent video games may make some children more aggressive. So do your homework (Common Sense Media is a great resource), and try to use devices in a way that not only educates your child, but also brings you together (like by playing Heads Up or Scrabble together).

2. Have family conversations about device use.

Talk to your teens about what they use devices for. Talk about social media, and make sure your kids understand that nothing they post is really private — and everything they post could be permanent (if there is anyone in the world they wouldn’t want to see a text or social media post, they shouldn’t text or post it). Talk about safety (how many people have you nearly hit because their face was in their phone when they crossed the street?). Set some family ground rules about use (which, um, you need to follow, too). Which leads me to the next piece of advice…

3. Don’t let screens get in the way of sleep.

This is becoming a really big problem. Screens keep kids up not only because they delay bedtime (just waiting until the show is over, just reading a few more Facebook posts or finishing a text conversation) and because the alerts can wake them, but also because the blue light emitted from screens actually wakes the brain up and makes it harder to fall asleep. Try to get TVs out of bedrooms, try to get screens shut off an hour before bedtime, and if you can’t get a teen to charge his device outside of his room, at least have him put it in Do Not Disturb mode.

4. Don’t let screens displace other good stuff.

Like… reading books, getting exercise, building or making things — or interacting with other people. The world is 3D; it contains other people; moving your body is good for your health and there is all sorts of wonderful stuff you’ll never experience if your face is constantly in a screen. Which leads me to the last and possibly most important bit of advice…

5. Don’t let screens get in the way of your relationships.

It’s sad how often these days we see people sitting together… but using their phones instead of interacting. It’s particularly sad when parents use them instead of interacting with their children, something that is becoming just as commonplace. Any time you could or should be interacting with your kid or anyone else who matters to you, shut the darn thing off.

That’s it. That’s all I’d say. Maybe we’d talk about the latest funny video we saw on YouTube or share a funny story about our kids and texting — because these devices are just as much a part of my life as yours. I really do get it.

And then we could move on to questions about shoes. Or food. Or sleep. Or anything else.

This post was originally published on The Huffington Post.