It's among the most talked about topics in parenting circles. Limiting screen time for children is something of a cultural obsession, one that has some parents feeling guilty. When you have friends who don't let their children watch any TV, but your child is responsible for at least one million of the views on the Baby Shark video, it's easy to get down on your own parenting, especially when it's not just our fellow parents, but experts telling us that screen time is harmful.
The American Academy of Pediatrics' guidelines suggest screen time limits based on age to protect children from the negative impacts video, but its counterpart in the UK is taking a different approach—one that might come as a relief to parents who can list the names of all the Paw Patrol dogs.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in the UK recently released its first guidance on screen time, and found it was "impossible to recommend age-appropriate time limits" because "there is not enough evidence to confirm that screen time is in itself harmful to child health at any age."
For parents who have been feeling guilty for going over the screen time limits (an hour for kids between 2-5 year old is an hour, and for kids younger than 24 months means nothing but video chat with Grandma) the RCPCH's guidelines bring some much-needed nuance to a debate that's been framed as a black and white issue.
Echoing previous AAP statements that were perhaps overshadowed by the inclusion of limits by age, the RCPCH "suggests parents approach screen time based on the child's developmental age, the individual need and value the family place on positive activities such as socialising, exercise and sleep - when screen time displaces these activities, the evidence suggests there is a risk to child wellbeing."
According to Dr. Max Davie, Officer for Health Promotion for the RCPCH, experts need to "let parents be parents" when it comes to screen time because "although there are negative associations between screen time and poor mental health, sleep and fitness, we cannot be sure that these links are causal, or if other factors are causing both negative health outcomes and higher screen time."
Translation: How much screen time a kid gets is not as important as the quality of the parenting they're getting.
As Scott Goldstein, an instructor of clinical pediatrics at the Northwestern University School of Medicine put it to the Chicago Tribune reporter Heidi Stevens: "If you spend Friday night watching 'Planet Earth' documentaries for three hours, that's a lot different from putting your kids in front of YouTube and watching an hour of unboxing videos. It's not the time; it's what you're doing with the time."
Over in the UK, Davie is calling for more research into how screen time impacts kids, and offers for common sense advice that works on both sides of the ocean: "When it comes to screen time I think it is important to encourage parents to do what is right by their family."
So, if what's right by your family is not owning a TV, that's cool. But if what works for your family allowing your 5-year-old to watch a movie that's 35 minutes over the AAP's daily recommendation for screen time limits, that's cool, too. Don't beat yourself up about it.
In the end, the most important screen time limits are the ones that you set for your kids, because like everything else about parenthood, there's no one-size-fits-all approach.