Canada Versus U.S.A. Screen Time Recommendations for Children

In October of 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised their screen time recommendations for children under 18. The revised recommendations are intended to offer guidance in a world where screens are far more ubiquitous than the prior recommendations that applied to when television viewing was the primary screen activity for children. The text from the AAP website is printed below.

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

On June 1, 2017, the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS – not to be confused with Child Protective Services, a U.S. agency) released separate recommendations for the screen time limits of children (but only for those under age 5), largely based on the same research. These recommendations are more comprehensive, and are printed below.

Recommendations

To promote child health and development in a digital world, physicians and other health care providers should counsel parents and caregivers of young children on the appropriate use of screen time. Specific recommendations include the following:

Minimize screen time:

  • Screen time for children under 2 years old is not recommended.
  • For children 2 to 5 years, limit routine or regular screen time to under 1 hour per day.
  • Ensure that sedentary screen time is not a routine part of child care for children younger than 5 years old.
  • Maintain daily ‘screen-free’ times, especially for family meals and book-sharing.
  • Avoid screens for at least one hour before bedtime, given the potential for melatonin-suppressing effects.

Mitigate (reduce) the risks associated with screen time:

  • Be present and engaged when screens are used and, whenever possible, co-view with children.
  • Be aware of content and prioritize educational, age-appropriate and interactive programming.
  • Use parenting strategies that teach self-regulation, calming and limit-setting.

As a family, be mindful about the use of screen time:

  • Conduct a self-assessment of current screen habits and develop a family media plan for when, how and where screens may (and may not) be used.
  • Help children recognize and question advertising messages, stereotyping and other problematic content.
  • Remember: Too much screen time means lost opportunities for teaching and learning.
  • Be reassured that there is no evidence to support introducing technology at an early age.

Adults should model healthy screen use:

  • Choose healthy alternatives, such as reading, outdoor play and creative, hands-on activities.
  • Turn off their devices at home during family time.
  • Turn off screens when not in use and avoid background TV.

The Canadian recommendations are more conservative. The AAP allows for some use of screen viewing for babies under 18 months – for video-chatting. The CPS makes a stronger statement, “Screen time for children under 2 years old is not recommended.” For babies between 18 and 24 months the AAP suggests parents choose, “high-quality programming,” and watch it with their children.

The Canadian recommendations are also more prescriptive. The AAP offers simple guidelines for the two to five year old age group as well, “Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs.” The CPS frames their recommendations with the governing statements: “Minimize screen time,” “Mitigate the risks…,” and “Be mindful.” In addition, the CPS offers research-backed recommendations on how to structure the screen time of children; such as “Ensure that sedentary screen time is not a routine part of child care,” “Be present when screens are used,” and “Help children recognize and question advertising messages.”

Both the AAP and the CPS have partner organization that help to explicate their recommendations. For the AAP it is HealthyChildren.org and for the CPS it is CaringForKids.cps.ca. By digging through each of these sites you can find nearly identical suggestions and guidance for parents and people who work with children.

It is interesting to note, however, that the press statements for each body are quite different. Was the AAP concerned with brevity? Why did the AAP find it necessary to include video-chatting as an exception to the guideline for babies younger than 18 months? How are we supposed to interpret the phrase “high-quality programs?” Was this phrase mentioned because Sesame Street had a member on one of the recommendation shaping panels?

Parents and educators rarely have time to sift through pages of websites to find the information they need to make decisions for policies and practice at home and in schools. If you are looking for concrete advice on how much and what kind of screen time is appropriate for your children under age 5, and if you are willing to read an extra one hundred eight words, the CPS guidance is likely to be more useful for you.

Addendum:

Laura Zimmerman, a post doc at U Delaware took time to respond to some of the questions I raise in the penultimate paragraph above.

  1. Why did the AAP find it necessary to include video-chatting as an exception to the guideline for babies younger than 18 months? Laura shared this child development research that suggests video chatting has enough social context to allow 24-30 month olds (N=36) to learn new words, and this study of parents of 6 to 24 month olds (N=183) who, when surveyed, reported that they viewed “video chat[ting] as an exception to otherwise restrictive media rules.”
  2. How are we supposed to interpret the phrase “high-quality programs?” Laura shared this research review that suggests that in a parent intervention model for preschoolers that includes exposure to PBS Kids math resources, parents report improvement in their preschooler’s understanding of math concepts. 
photo credit: too much tv, Jen Lemen, CC 2.0

About Jack West

Consultant, writer, analyst, teacher, coach, maker.

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