Tell any parent that the current advice from doctors’ groups in Canada and the U.S. is that children of all ages should spend no more than two hours a day on any screen device, and you’ll probably get a variation on the same response: “Ha! Good luck with that!”

In a world in which almost everyone over the age of 14 is carrying a smartphone, and iPads and gaming devices are used to keep kids busy while parents prepare dinner or buy some sanity time, kids are often staring at screens for much longer than two hours.

Nevertheless, the Canadian Paediatric Society encourages parents to limit TV watching to less than 1 to 2 hours per day for older children. The American Academy of Pediatrics goes even further, saying “screen time” should include not just TV, but also computers, laptops, gaming consoles, cellphones and texting.

Given that surveys show that Canadian children in Grades 6 to 12 are spending close to eight hours every day in front of screens, it’s clear that few families are heeding the advice.

U.S. pediatrician Dr. Claire McCarthy argued last year in the AAP’s own journal, Pediatrics, that it makes no sense to continue to push, year after year, the two-hour screen-time limit in the face of overwhelming evidence that behaviour is not changing.

“I am pretty sure that qualifies as insane,” she wrote in a piece entitled, “It’s Time To Rethink Our Messaging.”

Doctors have the best of intentions with these guidelines, of course. Rising obesity rates are a good indicator that children are spending too much time indoors on their devices and not getting enough physical exercise. Plenty of studies have also shown that the more time they spend on screens, the worse their grades, their sleep, and their social skills.

A study just recently published in JAMA Pediatrics found that children sleep more, do better in school and generally behave better when parents limit the amount of time their children spend on the computer or in front of the TV.

Dr. McCarthy suggests that instead of doctors’ groups focusing on the number of hours kids spend in front of screens, they should focus more on the quality of what’s being watched and read, emphasizing the benefits of content that is educational and that improves social behaviour.

Toronto-based pediatrician Dr. Joelene Huber says for her, the screen guidelines are best viewed as a goal to strive for.

“I think most of us would like to use screens less and cut back and have better media diets. But it’s a difficult thing to do,” she said in a phone interview.

“It’s kind of like nutrition: we know what’s best for us, but there’s just so much junk food out there that’s easily accessible.”

She’s not even convinced most parents know about the two-hours-a-day guidelines and suspects it’s not a topic pediatricians talk about much.

“We as doctors should be bringing it up and the reality is we often don’t,” she says.

Like many parents, Huber realizes that screens in all their forms are nearly impossible to avoid and are actually an important part of our lives now. But she notes there are plenty of educational apps, as well as high-quality TV shows that can enhance learning.

“(Screens) are here to stay so let’s think about the quality of what we’re consuming as well as the quantity,” she says.

Here are some tips that Huber offers:

  • Sit with kids regularly when they’re watching TV or on other screens, to monitor what they’re watching, and talk to them about what’s being presented.
  • Make children earn their screen time. Ensure they’ve done their homework, played outside for a set time and cleaned up their areas before allowing them, say, 30 minutes on the computer.
  • For younger kids, stick to shows with pro-social messages and coherent storylines.
  • Create screen-free times. So choose a place where all devices have to go at dinnertime, for example, and insist that no one in the family be allowed to check messages.
  • Model healthy screen use. Set your own limits and put off screen use until after the children are in bed.
  • Make children’s bedrooms screen-free zones, free of TVs and computers, as well as free from cellphones after bedtime.
  • Talk about commercials and advertising and what’s real and what’s marketing fantasy.
  • Listen to the news together and talk about the social media “cautionary tales” that tend to crop up.
  • Get on the social media sites your kids are on. Even if they won’t “friend” you, at least follow some of the same people your kids are following and familiarize yourself about what’s on those sites.

Not all screen time needs to be regimented educational stuff, Huber says; there’s still a place for shows that are made for pure entertainment. But she says screen time guidelines should ideally be seen as the best goal to strive for.

“We know what we should be doing… and what would probably be better for our kids. It’s what we’re striving for,” she says.

“So if kids are going to consume it, let’s think about the quality and how we’re balancing it with everything else they’re doing.”