Sí, se puede! Yes, we can!

Michael Rich, MD, MPH
Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH is Children’s media expert. He is the director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Last week he answered your questions on whether or not models in ads affect how girls feel about their own bodies, this week he addresses research published in the new issue of Pediatrics showing when parents set up and enforce strict screen-time limits for their kids, the children respect the boundaries and are often healthier for it.

“We can’t do that!” Whether it is avoiding using the TV as an electronic babysitter with an infant or limiting TV, video game or internet time with an adolescent, many parents have repeatedly expressed their reluctance to make their children’s media use part of their parenting. This is not because they don’t think it is important in today’s media-saturated society, but because they believe that it can’t be done. “You have to pick your battles…”

The key is not to make it a battle or assume that it will be one. Approach it the same way you do seat belts or nutrition. Establish healthy media use habits and screen-time limits as an expectation, not a demand. These limits, like those on smoking, drinking or underage driving, are there to protect them and help them build the knowledge and skills to protect themselves. While you should discuss the reason for screen-time limits and appropriate media content with your children, it should not be up for negotiation. Issues of health and safety are not to be negotiated – the stakes are too high. Although it is always easier to do starting when kids are very young, it is not impossible to do with any age child. Simply explain that you have new knowledge you did not have previously and it is game-changing. Many of us had to do this with bicycle helmets and, while there was pushback in the beginning, most kids have accepted and embraced helmets as a “given” of being healthy and safe.

Research in the current issue of Pediatrics shows that when parents understand AAP-recommended limits on screen time (1 to 2 hours per day for children over 2 years old), and clearly and consistently communicate them to their family, children observe them. When screen-time limits are consistently adhered to and understood well enough by both children and parents that they can independently report them, fewer than 1 in 5 children exceed healthy limits. Interestingly, they also found that kids who were most physically active were least likely to exceed screen-time recommendations. This shows that when parents are confident in parenting around media issues, explicitly base family rules on optimizing children’s health and safety, make expectations clear and adhere to them consistently, children will follow those rules. When children realize that they can take care of themselves and it’s not about right or wrong but healthy and unhealthy, they will do the right thing.