Regulating screens in a family with children at different developmental stages

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Send him a media-related parenting question via and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Michael RichQ: My wife and I have twin 6-year-old boys and a 4-year-old boy. Many of the strategies I’ve seen about responsible screen use, digital media, TV, etc. seem herculean for a family like ours. My wife will use commercial-free videos so she can take a break to cook, as well as online videos of volcanoes, jet fighters, etc. to engage the boys. I buy DVDs in German, as we are a multi-lingual household, and I’m trying to teach and maintain German, despite my being away often due to my schedule.  My question is, how can my wife and I make sure that we are only using screens meaningfully when we have multiple children at different developmental stages?

-Managing Multiples, in Philadelphia, PA

A: Dear Managing,

Your question addresses an issue many parents face, namely, how can we manage screen media use so that each of our children’s developmental needs are met, despite being at different developmental stages?

To help you tackle these issues, first look at their 24-hour day and assign time for the essentials such as sleep, meals, family time, school, and physical activity to help you figure out what time is left to potentially engage in screen media. Then, in the times when media are a good option, choose media with a goal in mind, instead of simply as an ‘electronic babysitter’ or what was once called the ‘plug-in drug’.  It sounds as though you and your wife are already doing this by choosing media that will help teach your children a second language (or about something of interest , like volcanoes and jet fighters). Because you are designing their schedules with them, you may be able to plan when media content can be viewed by all ages, as in learning German, and times when content for the older and younger kids can be viewed separately, because the others are involved in different activities.

Know that a screen is going to be very seductive for anyone in the same space, so use your available technology – DVR shows to be viewed at convenient times and, if a child is viewing while another is reading, have him use a tablet or other portable screen with headphones in his own space, even a corner of the room. Be conscious of the attention and focus of each of the children when they are in the same space doing different things.

When you are using entertainment media with all of the kids, make it a shared family experience, enjoying it with them and optimizing the benefits while reducing the risks for each child. Approach their screen media as part of their cultural learning. Watching classic movies is as important as reading great literature or listening to classical music. I started my own sons on Charlie Chaplin silent films when they were younger than yours and they still think they are hilarious (no children do not need either color or synchronized sound to be thoroughly entertained). Science based shows such as ‘Mythbusters’ and those featured on Animal Planet,  which combine science and spectacle can both engage and educate everyone in the family.

Enjoy your media (together and separately) and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®