The other day, my five-year-old son was playing in the back yard with a friend when I looked out the window to see the boys dumping sand on each other’s heads. I stepped outside to put an end to that game, only to hear music blaring and discover that our four-year-old neighbor was holding a smartphone. “Is that your mom’s phone?” I asked hopefully. “No, it’s mine!” he responded, pointing at the screen while my wide-eyed son watched. That’s when I noticed that they were not just listening to downloaded music or the radio but watching YouTube videos. I started to give the standard speech that always seems to embarrass my kids—no getting online without adult supervision—when the phone battery died, and the little boy rushed home to “recharge.” After he left, I explained to my son that the next time his friend comes over to play, he should not bring his phone.

Lately, we seem to be having more of these conversations. Most of my 11-year-old daughter’s friends have some type of digital media device, and some of my son’s friends—like our little neighbor—do too. Admittedly, when it comes to the Internet, my kids have been living in a protective bubble that I know could pop at any moment. Still, despite my concerns about the digital world’s encroachment on our family, we do not have formal media rules in place, even though I know the day is fast approaching when we will need them. Like me, many parents worry about their children’s media use but feel pressured by others, including their own kids, to allow more access to digital media than they would prefer. As Jeffrey Dill has explained on this blog, the pervasive nature of digital media can overwhelm parents, who then struggle to enforce and maintain limits.

To assist parents with this task, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently updated its media use guidelines for children and adolescents. In two new policy statements issued this month, the AAP outlines the benefits and risks of traditional and digital media, and offers recommendations and resources for parents, including a new interactive media plan to facilitate more “mindful” media use for families.

According to research cited by the AAP, 75 percent of children 0 to 8 years old had access to a mobile device in 2013 (up from 52 percent in 2011). Three-fourths of teenagers own a smartphone, and about 50 percent report that they are addicted to their phones.

In its policy statement on young children, the AAP acknowledges that some digital media (and TV programs) can be beneficial for early learning, but the benefits depend on a number of factors like media quality, how much time a child spends watching, and whether parents are involved. As for the risks, the AAP warns:

An earlier age of media use onset, greater cumulative hours of media use, and content that is not of high quality all are significant independent predictors of poor executive functioning (impulse control, self-regulation, mental flexibility) as well as ‘theory of mind’ deficits (i.e, the ability to understand others’ thoughts and feelings) in preschoolers. Media multitasking, once thought to be a pastime only of only adolescents, now is observed even in children younger than 4 years.

How much time parents spend using digital media devices can also pose a potential risk to children when these devices become a distraction. As the AAP explains, “Heavy parent use of mobile devices is associated with fewer verbal and nonverbal interactions between parents and children and may be associated with more parent–child conflict.”

A separate policy statement for school-aged children and teens (aged 5 through 18) points out that digital media has made it easier for youth to access health information, be exposed to new ideas, and to connect and communicate with family and friends.

While these are all good things in moderation, the risks from media overuse for children and teens are alarming. For instance, too much screen time is associated with a higher risk of obesity, especially for kids who watch or play more than two hours a day. Likewise, sleeping with a mobile device in the bedroom and using screens at or around bedtime are associated with a greater risk of disrupted sleep. Other risks originate from a child or teen simply being online, and range from exposure to inappropriate content/behavior to sexual exploitation and cyberbullying.

For a minority of youth, the AAP warns that overusing digital media can lead to “problematic Internet use,” or—in the case of excessive video gaming—“Internet gaming disorder.” The symptoms of both conditions include: “a preoccupation with the activity, decreased interest in offline or ‘real life’ relationships, unsuccessful attempts to decrease use and withdrawal symptoms.” Between 4 and 8 percent of children and adolescents may suffer from problematic Internet use, while “up to 8.5 percent of US youth 8 to 18 years of age meet criteria for Internet gaming disorder.”

In light of the risks associated with media use, the AAP advises parents of younger children (under 5) to:

  • “Avoid digital media use (except video chatting) in kids younger than 18 to 24 months” (for parents who choose to introduce digital media early, the AAP recommends only high-quality programming that children watch with parents, not alone)
  • Limit screen time for two to five-year-olds to one hour a day of educational programming, preferably viewed with parents
  • Turn off TVs or devices that are not in use
  • Keep bedrooms, meals, and family time device-free
  • Avoid screen exposure one-hour before bedtime

Much of this advice applies to older children and teens as well, but for this age group, the AAP recommends that parents: develop and discuss a Family Media Plan; engage in selective co-viewing of media with their children; have ongoing conversations about how to stay safe and be good online citizens; and develop a network of trusted adults who will interact with their kids on social media.

A recurring theme in the AAP’s guidelines is that when it comes to media use, parental engagement is critical to keeping children healthy and safe. At the end of the day, it is up to us as parents to set healthy media limits for our kids and to make sure they are not spending more time on their media devices than they with real people or outside. We decide if and when our kids get a cell phone or a Facebook account; how much time they spend online or watching TV; and how much access they have, at least at home, to various media devices. And we are responsible for monitoring our own media use and for modeling healthy habits.

Parents are the media gatekeepers, guides, and protectors of our children. Although setting limits is certainly more challenging today, we have a responsibility to determine when and how far to open the door to the digital media world for our kids, and to show them how to navigate that world wisely. The good news is there are a variety of online tools available to assist us in doing just that.