Children are getting too much screen time, but we shouldn’t blame the parents

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The World Health Organization released physical activity recommendations this week, which included suggests that parents limit their young children’s screen time. For children under two, screen time should be avoided. For children ages 2 to 5, sedentary screen time should be limited to one hour or less. In both cases, it said, “less is better.”

Several different national pediatric societies have issued guidance about the use of digital media by children in the past few years, including the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines that I helped write in 2016. Although there is often hand-wringing about the nuanced differences between our recommendations, it’s important that parents know the areas of consensus: it’s important to prioritize sleep, movement, social interaction, learning to calm strong emotions and play that lets the child’s mind take the lead; and that there’s plenty of low-quality digital content worth avoiding.

{mosads}Some guidelines like that of the WHO emphasize specific time limit recommendations, others suggest limits without a strict time, but none suggest parents let children use media in an unlimited manner.

Parents want their children to sleep, be active, be kind, think critically, and handle stress, but research continues to show that limiting media use is hard, and many parents feel guilty about it.

This guilt results from a disconnect between what clinical guidelines recommend and the design of our digital environment. In essence, we tell parents to limit, but the digital environment is designed to prolong engagement and increase clicks. We tell parents to co-view and interact with children around media, but many apps are designed with so many bells and whistles that children don’t look up or respond. We tell parents to help children learn about digital privacy while children’s apps collect and share user data. We are basically asking each family to figure out how to be a gatekeeper to the most enormous, unregulated playground their child has ever entered. It is a terribly designed system.

Dr. Tom Frieden, who was head of the Centers for Disease Control from 2009 to 2017, wrote that a much greater public health impact can be made not by counseling each patient to change their behavior, but instead change the environment to make individuals’ default decisions healthy. To reduce American’s trans fat intake, it was much more effective to remove it from foods than to tell each individual to change their diet.

Thus, to improve the quality of children’s media use, it will be much more effective to change the design of children’s digital environments.

This week, Tristan Harris outlined his vision for the Center for Humane Technology, the nonprofit organization advocating for design principles that value human well-being and relationships over the ‘extractive attention economy’ and advertising-driven business models. When applied to young children’s media use, such design principles could take many forms, such as those outlined in the proposed Kids and Design Safety Act from Sen. Markey’s (D-Mass.). Video streaming services could design default interfaces in which parents and children agree upon how many episodes they will watch, after which time the platform could give a friendly nudge to do something IRL (rather than start the autoplay countdown).

Developers could use resources such as the newly introduced Age Appropriate Design Code to reduce the amount of persuasive features that distract and manipulate young users. App stores could ensure that apps marketed to children collect no personal data, don’t share with third parties and aren’t packed with ads. Silicon Valley is filled with creative, smart designers who are also parents of young kids. Let’s design a better system and all feel less guilty.

Dr. Jenny Radesky is an assistant professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School, lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics media guidelines for young children, NIH-funded researcher and practicing Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician. She is on the board of directors of Melissa & Doug Toys, and is paid to write articles for the PBS Parents website.

Tags children screen time Technology WHO World Health Organization

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