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Kids and Media Use: How to Build Healthy Habits

Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD

Social media, the Internet, TV shows, movies, and interactive video games can be excellent sources of education and entertainment for kids. But inappropriate or too much media use can have unhealthy side effects.

That's why it's wise to monitor media use and help your kids develop healthy habits when they use smartphones, computers, TVs, and other devices.

What's Recommended?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) created these guidelines for media use:

  • Babies and toddlers up to 18 months old: No screen time except for video-chatting with family and friends.
  • Toddlers 18 months to 24 months: Some screen time with a parent or caregiver.
  • Preschoolers: No more than 1 hour a day of educational programming, together with a parent or other caregiver who can help them understand what they're seeing.
  • Kids and teens 5 to 18 years: Parents should figure out what media limits work best for their kids. Consider things like their age, health, and personality. Media should not take the place of enough sleep or being physically active.

Kids should have a wide variety of free-time activities, like spending time with friends and playing sports, which can help develop a healthy body and mind.

Media Use Tips

These tips can make kids' media use more productive:

  • Expand the focus. Any rooms that have a TV, computer, or other devices should also have plenty of non-screen entertainment (books, kids' magazines, toys, puzzles, board games, etc.) to encourage kids to do other things.
  • Keep your kids' bedrooms unplugged and media-free as much as possible.
  • Turn off devices during meals.
  • Don't let kids use media for entertainment while doing homework.
  • Treat media use as a privilege that kids need to earn, not a right that they're entitled to. Tell them that media use is allowed only after chores and homework are done.
  • Try to set limits on weekdays. Schoolwork, sports activities, and job responsibilities make it tough to find extra family time during the week. Record shows or save video games for weekends, and you'll have more family togetherness time to spend on meals, games, and physical activity during the week.
  • Set a good example. Limit your own device use, especially when you're with your kids.
  • Check the TV listings and program reviews. Look for programs your family can watch together (like developmentally appropriate and nonviolent programs that reflect your family's values). Choose shows that foster interest and learning in hobbies and education (reading, science, etc.).
  • Preview apps, video games, TV shows and movies. Make sure they're OK before your kids watch or use them.
  • Use the ratings. Check age-group rating tools for TV, movies, video games, and apps. Common Sense Media has information about age and content appropriateness of video games and other media.
  • Use screening tools. Many TVs have internal V-chips (V stands for violence) that let you block content you don't want your kids to see. And apps and software programs can help parents monitor or filter their child’s social media and Internet use.
  • Come up with a family media plan. The AAP's family media plan tool lets parents create a media plan for their family. Make it something you all can agree on. Then post it in a visible area (like on the refrigerator) so that everyone knows the rules.
  • Watch TV, use social media, and play video games with your kids. That way, you'll know if the content is OK for them.
  • Offer fun alternatives to screen time. If you want kids to turn off their devices, suggest alternatives like playing a board game, starting a game of hide and seek, or playing outside.

Talking Is Important

Talk to kids about what they see on their devices, and share your own beliefs and values. If something you don't approve of is onscreen, turn it off and take the time to talk with your child. You could ask:

  • "Do you think it was OK when those men got in that fight? What else could they have done? What would you have done?"
  • "What do you think about how those people were acting at that party? Do you think what they were doing was wrong?"

If some people or characters are mistreated or discriminated against, talk about why it's important to treat everyone fairly despite their differences.

You can use media content to explain confusing situations and express your feelings about tough topics (sex, drugs, alcohol, smoking, work, behavior, family life). Teach your kids to question and learn from what they see on screens.

Video and Interactive Computer Games

  • Look at the ratings. Video games and apps have ratings to indicate when they have violence, strong language, mature sexual themes, and other content that may be inappropriate for kids. The ratings, established for the Entertainment Software Rating Board, range from E (for Everyone), which means the game is OK for all ages, to AO (for Adults Only), which means that violent or graphic sexual content makes it appropriate only for adults.
  • Preview the games. Even with the ratings, it's still important to preview the games — or even play them — before letting kids play. The game's rating may not match what you feel is OK for your child.
  • Help kids get perspective on the games. Monitor how the games affect your kids. If they seem more aggressive after spending time playing a game, discuss the game and help them understand how the violence that's portrayed differs from what happens in the real world. That can help them identify less with the aggressive characters and reduce the negative effects that violent video games can have.

Internet and Social Media Safety

  • Learn how to block objectionable material.
  • Keep devices in a common area. Keep them where you can watch and monitor your kids. Avoid putting devices in a child's bedroom. Charge them overnight outside the bedroom.
  • Monitor your kids’ media use. Share an email account with younger children. “Friend” or “follow” your kids on social media so you can keep an eye on their activities.
  • Teach your kids about Internet safety and how to use social media wisely. Discuss rules for them to follow, such as never revealing personal information like their address, phone number, or school name or location.
  • Bookmark your child's favorite sites. Your child will have easy access and be less likely to make a typo that could lead to inappropriate content.
  • Spend time online together. Teach your kids appropriate online behavior.
  • Check for online protection elsewhere. Find out about the online protection offered at school, after-school centers, friends' homes, or anyplace where kids could use a computer without your supervision.
Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: August 2022