Canadian doctors offer tips to limit kids' screen time, after U.S. gets new set of guidelines

Canadian caregivers and health experts are closely watching new U.S. guidelines on how much screen time children should have.

Pediatricians in Canada will issue similar guidelines on digital media exposure next year

It's all about balance, the Canadian Paediatric Society says as it recommends that families do activities together, such as sports and outdoor play. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

Sometimes working mom Monica Urrutia just needs a break.

After a full day at work, the busy mom admits to putting her three-year-old in front of a television or handing him a tablet to keep him occupied while she races to pull together dinner.

It's a daily habit that has made the boy an expert at navigating various apps on his own, and demanding additional screen time when it's time to do other things.

"Sometimes it becomes that battle of wills," admits the Vancouver mom, who would like to limit his screen exposure but says reality often gets in the way.

Digital devices as parents' helper

"If you can't afford to have a babysitter come and you need to get something done in the house, it is kind of your helper, unfortunately."

New guidelines recently released by the American Academy of Pediatrics seem to recognize that. The organization has loosened its view on how much time kids should spend in front of a screen, even allowing limited use for infants.

The overall goal is still to reduce screen time as much as possible, but more focus is shifting to what kids watch and how — especially younger viewers who should watch with a caregiver who can explain what they're seeing.

Canadian guidelines will be very similar

"They are very similar to what our guidelines are shaping up to look like," Dr. Michelle Ponti says of the Canadian Paediatric Society's position, which is expected to roll out next year.

Ponti is chair of the task force refreshing Canadian guidelines that haven't been updated since 2012. She says the U.S. guidelines are a good reference until Canadian-tailored data is made public, acknowledging that much has changed with technology.

While current Canadian guidelines discourage any screen time for babies younger than two, the new American recommendations allow those younger than 18 months to take part in video-chatting. It also allows those aged 18 to 24 months to view "high-quality programming" with their parents.

For preschoolers no more than an hour daily 

Both sets of guidelines agree toddlers aged two to five should watch no more than one hour per day of video, and it should be high-quality programming.

When it comes to kids older than five, Canadian guidelines cap recreational screen time at two hours a day, while the U.S. guidelines removed hourly limits for kids aged six and older. Instead, the American academy encourages parents to set their own limits on various types of media, as long as screen use doesn't interfere with sleep and physical activity.

Ponti agrees with that strategy, noting it can work against families to fixate on a hard number.

Keeping the message simple: less is more

"We want to take the focus off exact numbers and months and rather focus on limiting the use (for) best, healthy practice. Less is more. I think that's going to be one of our main messages," she says, noting escalating screen use comes as child obesity rates increase.

"The nature of media is so ubiquitous and we get parents and families and children in our offices now and invariably everyone walks in with a smartphone," adds Ponti, who practises medicine in London, Ont.

"It's become a go-to strategy for all of us — the child is acting out, a parent whips out the smartphone and quickly the behaviour settles."

Set rules when child still an infant 

She says family rules around screen time should start as early as possible, ideally before a baby is even born so parents can adjust their own usage and model good behaviour.

The Canadian Paediatric Society encourages parents to choose a time of day to be 'family time,' when no one is distracted by the screens of TVs, computers, gaming devices, smartphones and tablets. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Tech guru and TV personality Amber MacArthur calls the U.S. guidelines "a lot more realistic" for better acknowledging how integrated screens have become in our lives. She wished the Canadian guidelines could keep better pace with the rapidly changing landscape.

"Right now we're talking about screens but in the future there may be other products, especially with the rise of the Internet of Things," says MacArthur, author of the book "Outsmarting Your Kids Online."

"We have to keep these guidelines updated every single year."

Guidelines should differ for various content

The Toronto mom would like to see guidelines specifically address the impact of different types of content — such as YouTube videos versus educational apps — and acknowledge that each family will have different struggles.

"I don't think it's realistic to set a goal of no screen time for children," says MacArthur, who sets "flexible" limits for her seven-year-old.

"I want my child to understand how to use it and how to leverage it and I don't think it's something I would exclude him from."

Designate media-free times

Both pediatrics groups suggest turning off screens when not in use, designating media-free times such as dinner or while in the car, and media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.

Matthew Johnson of the Ottawa-based advocacy group MediaSmarts also disputes the common perception that interactive devices are less harmful than passive ones.

"Unfortunately with the youngest age group that really isn't true," says Johnson, also a member of the Canadian Paediatric Society's digital task force.

"There's strong evidence that you get very similar deficits."

And background screens have an impact, too.

"Even if they're not watching it actively, it's drawing some of their attention, it's distracting them from interacting with other people or from creative play and in the long-term it's teaching them bad habits around media."

Seeing the need to limit commercials

Urrutia says she and her wife don't have strict time limits for their son, focusing more on content, especially the need to limit commercials.

Their preschooler generally watches 15 minutes in the morning while they shower and get dressed, and another hour in the evening after daycare, which he watches in short spurts while playing.

But she says it can be hard to keep track of all the time he spends on various devices, especially between two working parents.

"Are you parenting or are you policing? That's my main challenge," says Urrutia, who fears a hard time limit would only lead to arguments.

"I don't want to have a timer that goes, 'Ding,' and then I say, 'OK, time to take it away,' and he hasn't finished. Maybe in a minute he would have been finished."

The Canadian Paediatric Society won't update its guidelines until next year, but in the meantime offers up these tips for managing youngsters' exposure to TVs, computers, gaming devices, smartphones and tablets:

  • Create limits: Avoid screen time before the age of two and encourage good media habits from the start. The sooner you create limits, the easier they will be to maintain.
  • Look at your own habits: How much time do you spend behind a screen each day? Your child learns from your behaviour, so it might be time for a change.
  • It's all about balance: Encourage a balance between screen time and other activities like sports, hobbies and outdoor play. This is something they can do on their own, or you can do as a family.
  • Time to disconnect: Choose a time of day to be "family time," when no one is distracted by screens. Ask your kids to give you their phones at a designated time so they can learn the value of screen-free time and the importance of being disconnected at night.
  • Get involved: Use media with your child. Learn what they enjoy and talk to them about it. The more you are involved in your child's online life the more you can help them make safe choices.