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Canada Screen test: How kids use digital devices is more important than amount of time spent, new guidelines say

Anna Foat and her sons Jack (centre), 7, and Dylan, 5, sit in the living room of their London, Ont., home on June 5, 2019. Dylan and Jack have to watch YouTube videos on the family's television rather than smaller screens, so Anna and her husband can be sure of what they are watching.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Parents should be more concerned with how their school-aged children and adolescents use digital devices than with the total time they spend entranced by screens, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society.

The pediatricians’ group is still encouraging parents to minimize screen time, but it stopped short of dictating a ceiling in its first digital-media guidelines for older children in the smartphone and social-media era. The CPS said it would be “very difficult” to set cut and dried time limits for screen time technology that can be detrimental in some circumstances and beneficial in others.

“The sweet spot would be low to moderate use,” said Michelle Ponti, a London, Ont., pediatrician who chairs the CPS’s digital health task force, which wrote the guidelines released Thursday. “It also depends on content and context. Violent video games are going to have different impacts than family movie night.”

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The CPS guideline defines “moderate” use as between two and four hours a day. The new guidelines apply to children as young as 5 and teens as old as 19.

Two years ago, the CPS released guidelines for younger children that advised no screen time at all for those under the age of 2, and no more than an hour a day for children between the ages of 2 and 5.

The amorphous nature of the term “screen time” is just one of the challenges parents are facing as they try to steer their children through a digital coming of age that looks nothing like their own.

Social media, for example, isolates some teenagers, while deepening real-life friendships for others – it depends on how they are used.

Nonetheless, three-quarters of Canadian parents are concerned about how much time their children spend using digital media, with 36 per cent reporting their children between the ages of 10 and 13 spend more than three hours a day parked in front of a screen for fun, the CPS document says.

“It’s an area where parents feel the least prepared to parent,” said Cori Cross, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and one of the co-authors of a similar set of guidelines released in 2016 by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“It’s like the norms keep changing and they keep moving the bar, so you’re not sure, as a parent, where you stand with your rules in your house versus somebody else’s.”

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Despite eschewing a time limit, the Canadian guidelines do offer some concrete advice for parents, including: Make a family media plan and stick to it; discourage media multitasking, especially during homework time; obtain your children and teenagers’ passwords to ensure they’re using digital media safely; and, whenever possible, watch digital media with your children.

Anna Foat, 43, has already found a way to follow the CPS’s advice on co-viewing digital online content with her sons Jack, 7, and Dylan, 5.

After the boys kept stumbling on tasteless YouTube videos, she began hooking a digital device up to the big-screen TV in her family’s living room in London so she could keep an eye on what they were watching.

“I’ve tried 18 ways from Sunday to try to allow them a little bit of freedom without having them go in to the cesspool that can be YouTube, but I haven’t found another way to do anything around content,” Ms. Foat said. “Yes, time is important – I don’t want them burning their eyeballs out all day – but I’m more worried that they’re going to watch something that’s really inappropriate.”

Controlling the quality and quantity of screen time in her home has been a challenge, Ms. Foat admitted. Sometimes, there are tears and tantrums when she takes away the boys’ tablets or shuts off Fortnite, an online video game that is popular with her eldest son and his friends.

Another of Ms. Foat’s tactics is filling the boys’ time with activities. It’s part of the reason the family joined the local YMCA.

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The CPS guideline encourages that approach. It says parents should prioritize their kids’ sleep (nine to 12 hours a night, depending on age), physical activity (at least an hour of the vigorous kind daily) and time with friends and family, including screen-free meals.

If parents manage to achieve those goals, their children won’t have much time left over for screens, Dr. Ponti said.

“Screens aren’t going anywhere,” she said. “So the number one thing that parents can do is prioritize – prioritize all the things in our lives that we know lead to good health.”

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