Your pediatrician is worried

Doctors urged to press parents on electronic media use by children

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It is a recommendation that is certain to cause huge family fights, followed by door-slamming, tears and covert attempts to subvert it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that parents limit their children's access to cell phones, the Internet and television, especially in their bedrooms and particularly after lights out.

And it has recommended that its member doctors begin asking questions about electronic media use at well-child visits and urge parents to come up with a plan.

The policy extends the academy's long-standing recommendation that kids not have TVs in their bedrooms and that their entertainment screen time be limited to no more than two hours a day.

It is more than a huge time waster, the academy says in a report issued in the journal Pediatrics. And kids are not just missing sleep when they are up late watching movies and television on their tablets or smart phones.

The overuse of electronic media has been linked to aggressive behavior, obesity, the use of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs and difficulties in schools.

Worse, kids are often tormenting each other with gossip or harassing text messages late at night. And, in a particularly startling comment, the author of the new policy, Dr. Victor Strasburger promised parents that if they have a 14-year-old boy with Internet access in his bedroom, he is looking at pornography.

According to the report used to buttress this new policy, 8- to 10-year-olds spend nearly eight hours a day on electronic media, and older children and teens spend more than 11 hours. This includes everything from television to computers to cell phones.

Eighty-four percent of children have access to the Internet, and a third of those kids have it in their bedrooms.

Seventy-five percent of 12- to 17-year-olds own cell phones, 88 percent of those use text messaging, and in the first three months of 2011 — that's almost three years ago now — they sent an average of 3,364 texts a month. A third sent more than 100 a day.

It is not just that this time could be better spent reading, studying or playing outside. It is that the lives of our children have gone underground with the help of smart phones and the Internet. There is nothing left for parents to "overhear" in their effort to keep the kids safe or to spot trouble. Parents have to find a way to get back in control, if only marginally.

According to the report, two-thirds of children and teenagers report that their parents have "no rules" about time spent with media. No rules.

I am not surprised. First, adults are light years behind their children in the world of social media. We don't know what we don't know. And second, we already spend a lot of our time with our children talking about permissions and limits. Trying to impose limits on electronic media would be a real barn-burner.

We can certainly be honest and open with our kids about the danger here. We can define responsible online behavior for them. We can encourage them to engage with their friends personally instead of by text. We can provide lots of opportunities for them to be active outdoors and away from the Internet.

But if we don't take the extra steps to enforce this behavior in children who are not good judges of limits and not good decision-makers, we are making a half step.

The TV and the computer need to be in a public place in the house, one with lots of traffic. The kids need to hand over the cell phones at bed time or during dinner time and homework time. Put timers or passwords on the wireless router if need be.

Be the grown-up. Be the parent.

And then let the howling begin.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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