PhotoParents with young children know the value of an entertaining TV show or computer game when the kids need to be occupied for a short while. But a little screen time goes a long way.

According to National Institutes of Healthguidelines, children under age 2 should have no screen time. Over age 2 they should be limited to 1 to 2 hours per day.

A new survey by the University of Michigan shows kids are spending a lot more time than that in front of a screen. About 25% of parents with children between 2 and 5 say their children get 3 hours or more each day.

Not many rules

Only about half of the parents surveyed said they try to set some limits on viewing by prohibiting media devices in bedrooms or in dining areas.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also expressed concern about the time young children spend in front of some kind of media screen. In 2013 AAP updated its guidelines, adopted by NIH, reducing the recommended screen time for children.

The poll found that 53% of parents are following recommendations that children’s entertainment screen time be limited by location. Twenty-eight percent said they use a combination of location and time limits.

More worrying for policymakers is the 13% who admit they place no limits on entertainment screen time and have “screen-free” zones in their homes.

“In our poll, we found that one-quarter of parents of kids 2 to 5 years old are allowing more than three hours of entertainment screen time each day,” said April Khadijah Inniss, M.D., pediatrician at the University of Michigan Health System.

What kids are missing

It's not so much the content of the entertainment that is the problem. Rather, Dr. Matthew Davis, director of the C. S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health says it's what the children are missing while they are glued to the screen.

“When you get to three or four hours each day, that screen time crowds out other important activities that babies and young kids should be engaging in: looking at books, going for walks or playing outside,” Davis said.

The survey exposes one area where parents of young children are not on board with the medical community's recommendations. Only 12% of parents of children under age 2 believed it was right to block all screen time.

In fact, these parents overwhelmingly expressed the belief that 2 hours or less a day of screen time is reasonable. After all, there are a number of “educational” media products specifically produced for very young children.

Skeptical of “educational” videos

“Videos aimed at very young children do not improve their development, in spite of what ads that promote them say,” according to NIH.

The health agency says too much time spent in front of TV or a tablet can increase the risk of a child becoming obese, make it harder for a child to get a good night's sleep and could lead to attention problems, anxiety and depression.

While many parents may not want to try to enforce strict rules they could help by setting a good example. In fact, there is data to suggest that can be effective.

Parental influence

AAP cites a 2013 study that showed the amount of time that children and teens spend watching television may have more to do with their parents’ TV habits than with family media rules or the location of TVs within the home.

The researchers say parents’ TV viewing time had a stronger connection to children’s viewing time than rules about time limits, whether the children had a TV in the bedroom, and co-viewing. For every hour a parent spent in front of a screen, their children tacked on an additional half hour.

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