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Do You Have a Family Media Policy?

​By J. Christopher McGinnis, Ph.D., BCBA-D​

Screens, screens and more screens. Computer monitors, laptops, iPhones, iPads, movies, videogames – and that's just for the kids.

In this age of ubiquitous electronic media, we all run the risk of getting ​too little sleep, not exercising enough and forgetting that our spouses and children need more face time with us (and I don't mean the face time brought to you by the friendly folks over at Apple). Our children might have it worse, for unlike us, they've never known a world where hopping on your bike and riding over to a friend's house to play was the way you fought boredom. Much of their education, leisure time and social lives occur online, sometimes to their detriment.

They know no differently; that's life in the electronic age.

That's unless we take a countercultural stand and actually actively parent them through this new normal. Our kids need our leadership, not unfettered electronic playtime. They need to develop good habits, adequate spoken language and social skills, and a work ethic, to constantly be in training for the day they leave our homes for college and beyond, when they must survive and hopefully thrive on their own.

As adults, we can't go online unless we purchase an electronic device, establish and continue to pay for an online service, establish and continue to pay for a WIFI signal, land and hold a job that enables us to pay for all of this and complete all the chores we have to do before we can take a minute and relax. What has your child done to earn his or her screen time today?

I regularly counsel families to strive for overall life balance and earned screen time for our kids. Lots of things should take priority over screen time. We should protect time for sleep, homework and daily family time. Our kids also need exercise each day.

As for sleep, 4-year-olds need 11 hours per night, 10-year-olds need 10 hours, and 17-year-olds need 9 hours. That's being asleep, not just being in bed.

For homework, elementary-age children should have about 30 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of old-fashioned sit-down homework to do each day, while middle school- and high school-age children should have between one and two hours of homework and studying each day. If you are concerned about your child's homework load, just ask his or her teacher what the expectations should be so you can enforce them.

Family time, with no distractions – just people hanging out and looking at and talking to each other – should cover at least ten minutes of your day and hopefully an hour or more, especially at dinnertime. Don't forget to BE a family before it's too late. The annual trip to Disney World really doesn't do it.

For daily exercise, I recommend that kids have at least an hour of physical movement that gets the heart beating faster, and no more than an hour or two of inactivity at a time, unless of course it's after bedtime.

Our children should earn their daily screen time by being good citizens every day, meaning they independently (without our help or reminders) complete their chores and homework, consistently make it easy for us to be the unchallenged leaders of the family and follow the Golden Rule with their siblings and other children. We have our job and they have their job, and their job is to consistently and increasingly be independent, respectful and helpful.

How much screen time is too much, provided that our kids are getting enough sleep and exercise and have proven to be good citizens today?

Since 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has argued for NO screen time for children 2 and younger and a limit of two hours for children 3 and older. However, the AAP recently signaled that it (and its recommendations) are getting hipper to the idea that our little ones can benefit from certain educational apps and that our tweens and teens can have a whole healthy and rewarding social life online.

In their October 2015 AAP News, they suggest an increasing acceptance that "media is just another environment," "content matters," and "it's okay for your teen to be online." All that said, I recommend using priority-based and safety-based guidelines rather than time-based guidelines.

Regarding those safety-based guidelines, we must monitor our children's online lives just as we do their "sidewalk" lives. I encourage parents to announce as early as possible in their children's lives that the children should not assume they have privacy and that the parents will be monitoring everything, because our primary job in life as parents is to maintain our children's safety and welfare while understanding that kids will be kids. If we say this early and with love, our children should not be upset about it, should feel safer and will likely engage in much less risky online activities. This is particularly true if we also proactively and routinely review our expectations for their online behavior.

If your teen tries to lock you out of his or her electronic life, don't threaten anything. Simply announce that his or her electronic life is suspended until further notice. Until trust flows both ways, there can be no screen time. Don't let "I'm sorry" escape your lips either; it was your teen's fault, not yours. But your teen should also know redemption could be made available soon. Maybe tomorrow's the day. We'll see.

Another practical screen time-limiting strategy is routinely shutting off the WIFI signal at bedtime and maintaining a family charging station in the master bedroom until the use of a device is earned the next day. With good sleep health in mind, under no circumstances should any child or teen have access to electronic devices overnight. So your kid says he needs the iPhone as his morning alarm. Hand him an old-fashioned $10 alarm clock, cheerfully say you're welcome and walk away.

Lead your family. Raise your kids based on unwavering principles and priorities. And when it comes to screen time, I hope these considerations for a family media policy are helpful and effective.​