I have always valued the screen time guidelines set out by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as a way to promote the values of literacy and healthy media use. Before becoming a parent I intended to follow these guidelines to the letter. Yet like so many of the lofty goals of pre-parenthood, reality came crashing in once the kids were born and things changed.

While I do not perfectly follow the AAP’s screen time guidelines, I use my understanding of the rationale behind them to make the best decisions I can for my family.

Prioritize Play and Talk

One of the primary reasons the AAP recommends no screen time other than video chatting before the age of eighteen months is that screen time at this very young age has been found to limit language and social development. When you and your child are both staring at a screen, you are not talking to each other and your child is missing out on the vital interactions that create language. This same rationale continues for older children: when kids spend time with screens instead of humans they miss out on interactions that teach them social skills, empathy, and other concepts they need to succeed in school.

Time spent playing and talking with your children is vital to their development, so make sure you put these interactions first. Literally, do them before you let any screen time happen. Turn off all screens, put your phone in a different room, and spend some quality time interacting with your kids with no distractions for anyone, including you. Spending a minimum of ten minutes truly engaged with your child before any screens are turned on will have wonderful benefits for both of you.

Engage in Multimedia Literacy Practices

The AAP recommends that parents engage in screen time with their children. Parents can use the media as a basis for discussion so kids still get the benefits of language and skill development that adult-child interactions provide. If you are using screen time as a distraction so you can get something done, which is my own primary use of screen time, you can still use that time as a basis for discussion after the screen is off.  

As a literacy professional, I like to enrich this discussion by framing it within traditional literacy practices and strategies. The five early literacy practices for young children (read, write, talk, sing, and play) can be applied to screen media and can be used with older children as well. Here are some ideas:

    • Read: If a child has a favorite show or game, see if any books have been published featuring the characters. This can be incredibly motivating for kids who prefer screens to reading. Our Early Reader section, in particular, includes many books based on television shows and games.  You could also simply find books that feature a topic or theme central to your child’s favorite programming. Whether it’s trains, dragons, fairies, or animals, the librarians in Youth Services would love to help you find books featuring your child’s favorite topic! 
    • Write: Drawing, coloring, and scribbling are all important precursors to the writing of letters and words. Ask your child to draw a picture based on their favorite show or game and then tell you a story about what they drew. Not only will they practice fine motor skills necessary for writing, they will also be engaging their imagination in their own storytelling. 
    • Sing: Whether it’s singing the theme song to a favorite show, or creating new lyrics inspired by screen programming to go along with a classic tune, screen-inspired singing is a wonderful literacy building activity because it lets children play with the structures of words and phrases. 
    • Play: Use screen programming as a springboard for imaginative play with your child, and you will be amazed at the scenarios they can create. I like to have my daughter create imaginary crossovers, such as “what would happen if Curious George invited Big Bird over to play?” 
    • Talk: This is the big one! Engage your child in a discussion of the media content they consume. You can let your conversation happen organically, or you could help your child develop their comprehension skills by framing a conversation with traditional comprehension strategies, such as the following: 
      • Make connections. Ask your child to connect the content being viewed to their own lives, to books they have read, or to other shows or games.
      • Ask questions. Literally any question your child asks about what they watch, read, or play helps them to think more deeply and increase understanding. Questions are a sign of intelligent thinking! Model how to ask deep questions by posing your own for your child to answer.
      • Determine cause and effect. Why did the character get upset? What happened after the dragon showed up? Understanding the links between events is a vital life skill, and one that you can help your child practice with any form of media. Prompt them to make these connections by asking open-ended questions.
      • Compare and contrast. Children will rely on this skill throughout their academic and everyday lives. You can help them practice on a small scale, such as comparing and contrasting two characters within a show or game, or on a large scale, such as comparing and contrasting the plot of a favorite TV show with a well-known fairy tale.
      • Recall sequence. This skill is necessary to understand cause and effect, follow a process, or summarize a text. Simply asking your child to retell a story, or asking which of two events happened first, can help them develop sequencing skills.
      • Summarize. “What was that episode about?” A simple question can prompt anything from a one-word answer to a complete retelling. Help your child identify the most important points of a plot to create a succinct summary.
    • Make inferences. This skill requires high-level thinking, but with some guidance small children can make inferences. Lead with questions such as, “why do you think the character was sad?” to help your child reach new conclusions.

When it comes to screen time, remember that moderation is key, and that media can be a wonderful point of interaction between you and your child. Like any parenting advice, I hope you can combine this information with your own expert knowledge of your family to make choices that work for you.