If media is like food, how is your family’s diet?

Media has become as much a part of life as food—but we don’t always have the healthiest diets.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) just updated their policy statement entitled “Children, Adolescents and the Media.” It’s full of some really interesting facts. Did you know that 8 to 10 year olds spend eight hours per day with some kind of media, and for older children and teens that goes up to more than 11 hours a day? As they point out, young people currently spend more time with media than they do in school.

Common Sense Media also came out with a report about media in kids under 8 years old. The good news is that screen time has gone down in that age group by about 20 minutes to just under two hours—but their use of mobile media (tablets and smartphones) has dramatically increased: 72 percent of them have used a mobile device for media, including 38 percent of kids less than 2 years of age (you’re not the only one distracting your toddler with YouTube videos on your iPhone).

And yet, most families don’t really have rules about media use. In fact, in a recent study two-thirds of children and teens asked said that they had no rules at all in their homes.

That’s kind of nuts.

Media can be bad for kids. Research has shown that it can make them obese, and interfere with school and sleep. Exposure to the wrong kind of media can increase aggressive behavior and make kids more likely to have sex earlier. Exposure to fast-paced media at an early age can interfere with executive function, and early TV exposure is linked to behavioral and learning problems like ADHD. And with the explosion of the Internet comes fears about leaving a not-so-great “digital footprint” (some of those pictures on Facebook may not make the best impression on future employers or admissions officers) as well as cyberbullying concerns.

The recommendations of the AAP haven’t changed. They still say:

  • Limit “entertainment” media to less than one or two hours per day.
  • Kids less than 2 years should have little or no media exposure.
  • Keep televisions TV’s and the Internet out of the bedroom
  • Monitor the media that kids use
  • Co-view TV, movies and video games their media preferences with them
  • Have family rules about media use, such as having a media “curfew” for mealtimes and bedtime

These are good, general rules, but they may not be realistic for many families—especially the no media under age 2, or the no Internet in the bedroom (in our house, the bedroom is the only place to find some quiet to do homework, and that involves the Internet).

That’s why I like the concept of “media diet.” Not many of us eat perfect diets, with all the right amounts of fruits and vegetables, no fast food, only whole grains, everything unprocessed and pesticide-free. But most of us do think that eating healthy is a good idea, and we try as best we can. That’s what we need to do with media, too. Here are some suggestions:

Do a realistic assessment of your family’s media intake. How much do your kids really use it? Are you using it as a babysitter? How much sex, violence or plain old mindlessness are they watching? How much are they texting? In the first three months of 2011, the average teen 13 to 17 years sent an average of 3,364 texts a month. Talk about it as a family, honestly. It will help as you…

Set some sensible limits. I agree that the dinner table and the bedroom after bedtime should be media-free zones. Pay attention to ratings—“Call of Duty” just is not a good video game for a 10 year old. Make sure homework is done, and that there has been some exercise before American Idol goes on. As tempting as it may be to have SpongeBob entertain your preschooler while you cook, have them hang out with you instead. If the media use doesn’t have value, cut it back or out. Every family will do this differently. Don’t worry about being perfect: aim for better.

Have ongoing conversations with your children about media. Be realistic, you just aren’t going to be able to monitor or co-view everything. But you can talk with them about what they see, or might see, and how they should think about it and make good decisions.  You can talk to them about bullying—and help them understand that nothing they post on the Internet is truly private, and all of it is permanent. This is a multiple conversation thing, so get started if you haven’t already.

Make the most of it. Yeah, Angry Birds is fun. But there are actually some pretty great apps out there that can not just entertain your child but also can teach them. There are games and apps you can play with them, which is especially important for young children. There are ways to connect and learn and create using media that are really cool. Check out the website of Common Sense Media for some great ideas.

A little junk food is fine here and there (“Glee” is like candy for me), but let’s try to eat some broccoli too. And remember that as with food, sometimes less media is better.