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The Canadian Pediatric Society has dropped a strict time limit on screen use in toddlers and preschoolers, instead encouraging parents to prioritize educational, interactive and age-appropriate materials .

New guidelines released Thursday still recommend no screens at all for children under two, except for video chatting with others, such as grandparents.

But a previous recommendation that set a hard cap of one hour a day for children aged two to five has been relaxed to allow for interactive and engaging forms of screen use such as educational programs and movie nights in family, says Calgary pediatrician Dr. Janice Heard, a member of the group’s digital health task force.

She says parents would be better off focusing on reducing passive screen use, co-viewing with kids, and modeling desired behavior.

“The best thing they can do for their child is to interact with them one-on-one, if they can,” Heard says, suspecting pandemic lockdowns have reversed pre-COVID-19 momentum to curb the use of screens among different age groups.

“Then they will naturally reduce the time their children spend on screens when they recognize that it doesn’t teach them anything, that it doesn’t help them in any particular way. And for very young children, it’s actually quite harmful.”

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Heard says the screens themselves aren’t inherently bad, but they displace activities that are essential to a child’s development. She says excessive screen use for young children can interfere with language development, prosocial behavior and executive functioning.

The new guidelines emphasize four principles: minimize, mitigate, use mindfully and model healthy use of screens.

But it’s the abandonment of the recommended timeframes that Heard hopes will encourage parents and families to actively set limits on passive consumption and consider when, how and why they allow screen use for young children. .

Heard says the same principles can be extrapolated to older children and teens, for which the society issued similar guidelines in 2019 that encouraged individual child-based limits, without harsh time limits.

Blurred line to the digital world

Pediatric society deadlines have long been a source of stress for many families who don’t know what’s acceptable, says Natalie Coulter, director of York University’s Digital Literacy Research Institute.

“It assumes a real simplicity of ‘right time’ and ‘bad time’.” even try [to define] what is no longer a screen becomes difficult,” says Coulter, associate professor of communication and media studies.

“There is now a very blurred line between the real world and the digital world. There is no longer a clear description. If you go to school via a screen, is it time to screen? Is it real or digital?

Coulter is part of a research group that surveyed parents of children ages 4 to 12 about screen use during the pandemic. The study includes 15 families in Canada, as well as others in Australia, Colombia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, China and the United States.

Messaging on a tightrope

Stress over how to meet screen recommendations was a common theme, she says, and the notion of imposed deadlines is outdated.

“Parents are under so much pressure and so much guilt. It’s kind of unrealistic and it just adds to a kind of parenting feeling of not being good enough,” Coulter says.

shutterstock medium file
Pediatric society guidelines for older children also encourage limits based on the individual child, without difficult time limits. (Shutterstock)

“I have two daughters [and] I’m totally struggling with it, it’s not like I have these brilliant answers. But I think, like everything, as soon as you set very strict binary rules, it shuts down the dialogue a bit.”

Matthew Johnson, Education Director of Ottawa-based MediaSmarts Group, recognizes a tightrope when it comes to messaging. He helped draft the new guidelines as a member of the Pediatric Society’s Digital Health Task Force and notes that focusing on harms can undermine constructive advice on how to develop media literacy.

“There is also a risk that if a screen time guideline seems unrealistic, it will simply be ignored,” Johnson says.

“It will feel like if you can’t reach that guideline, because it’s too unrealistic, then there’s nothing you can do to manage the role of screens in your family. I think it’s much more helpful to give parents strategies to establish positive uses and positive relationships with screens.”

The new guidelines also encourage pediatricians to discuss screen use during routine visits, with Heard worrying that too few families she has spoken with seem to be aware of screen-related risks.

“I’ll ask them the question, ‘How much screen time does your child have?’ “Oh, well, probably an hour before school, a few hours after school, then in the evening, and they have their TV…in their bedroom,” she said.

“And I just think, ‘Oh, boy, we haven’t done a good job raising our young parents.’

Even small changes can have a big effect on families willing to limit screen use, she says, suggesting screen-free times of day, screen-free zones at home, and turning to books and crafts as alternatives.

“It’s not like they have to change their whole life. But even doing one thing allows them to improve the outcomes of what’s going to happen with their kids,” Heard says.

“[At] the CPS we are all parents too, we all understand. We want to be able to give people concrete things they can do that will make a difference that won’t completely disrupt their lives.”

Canada’s Screen Time Guide emphasizes quality over quantity

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