Screens are everywhere we look – phones, TVs, tablets, computers. We use them for keeping in touch with friends and family, shopping, getting the news, and sometimes even to see the menu when we’re sitting at a restaurant. Many kids also use them in schools, beginning as early as the elementary grades.
We hear exciting things about the next generation’s affinity for technology and the advances that could be possible in their lifetime. But we hear just as much (and sometimes more) about the dangers that too much screen time could have on young minds. Naturally, all of this leaves many parents wondering, How much screen time is too much for our kids?
The simple answer is that finding a healthy balance is key. Research studies show both positives and negatives for screen time – and those results are closely associated with media used in moderation versus excess. We’ll cover what the research shows about screen time, pediatricians’ recommendations by age, and ways to balance media use and “unplugging” for the well-being of both kids and parents.
What exactly is screen time?
Screen time describes the amount of time spent watching or engaging with digital media on a screen, including phones, tablets, computers, game consoles and TVs.
Scrolling through social networks or emails on your phone is screen time. If your child is playing a game on a tablet, yep, that’s screen time. And if your family watches a movie on the couch or heads to a movie theater to see the latest superhero flick, that’s screen time, too.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children aged 8-12 in the U.S. spend an average of 4-6 hours per day watching or using screens. For teens, that number goes up to 9 hours.
Is screen time bad for kids?
This question is frequently debated, and the answer appears to be both yes and no. The benefits or detriments of screen time depend on several factors, including the type and quality of content, the length of time spent, the level of active engagement versus passive viewing, and the presence of others engaging with the content alongside the viewer (also called co-viewing).
With little scientific evidence that screen time is directly harmful for kids, many experts suggest that it may be better to focus more on what kids are doing on screens rather than how much.
For example, letting a one-year-old sit in front of a TV for long periods has been shown to have negative effects on their well-being. However, when a parent watches an educational show alongside their older child – when you’re both reacting to what you see, asking questions and engaging together – it can have a positive impact. The content, quality and engagement factors matter.
Positives about screen time
Screen time actually has a lot of positive aspects that can sometimes be overlooked. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that in moderation, screen time seemed to have a positive effect on kids. The study was based on data from 35,000 children and their caregivers, and the results suggested that children who spent 1-2 hours per day engaging in digital device activities (including television-based) were likely to have increased levels of emotional and social well-being compared to non-users.
Other benefits to screen time:
- Digital media can be educational and a fun way to learn and engage with new concepts
- It grows kids’ vocabulary and models those new words in ways they can conceptualize and remember (even better if a parent is there to explain it, too)
- Devices and digital tools are valuable in schoolwork from the earliest grades to college and beyond
- Playing video games can improve coordination, fine motor skills and teamwork
- Digital devices and tools like texting, video chats and playing video games can be fun ways to communicate and socialize
Negatives to screen time
Screen time can certainly be valuable, but it’s important to make sure that children are developmentally ready and that it doesn’t displace time for other critical things like sleep, exercise, playtime, school work and socializing in-person.
And with teens, it’s important to monitor that the content they engage with is appropriate, as well as reinforcing moderation and being mindful of signs that they’re becoming dependent on screens for constant entertainment or (digital) connection. Parents of children of all ages must also ensure that they’re not relying on screens to keep kids busy or manage behavior. (Ask your pediatrician if you’re looking for ways to shift away from that habit or if you have any other questions about media use.)
According to the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), too much screen time can be associated with attention and learning problems, lower academic performance, digital eye strain, obesity and negative behavior in children. The development of myopia (nearsightedness) in children is also a concern.
Screen time recommendations for kids by age
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has carried out numerous studies on the effects media use has on children. They’ve found media to be beneficial if used in moderation by children of the appropriate age. On the flip side, they’ve found that in excess, screen time can have harmful effects on kids’ mental and physical health. Here are the AAP’s recommendations for children’s screen time by age.
Screen time recommendations for babies and children under 2
The AAP discourages screen time for children under two, except for video calls with family or friends. Why? There’s little evidence of cognitive or social benefits at this age, and babies aren’t developmentally able to learn through digital media and transfer knowledge to what they know of the world.
Instead, the AAP says that it’s critical for caregivers to spend as much time as possible talking, singing, playing and reading with them. These interactions are the primary ways babies learn, and are scientifically proven to develop cognitive function (their brain grows the fastest during years 0-3) and strengthen their bond with parents and caregivers. To learn more about the big impact those small connections have on brain development, visit www.littlemomentscount.org
Screen time recommendations for children 2-5 years old
For kids between the ages of 2 and 5, the AAP recommends no more than one hour of screen time daily. At this age, some media use can be beneficial for learning, but it’s important for a parent to be present and engaging alongside them.
Avoid any fast-paced or distracting media content as kids don’t understand it as well, and steer clear of violent content. (Even violence that seems mild.) The AAP also cautions against routinely using media as the main way to calm an upset child.
Screen time recommendations for kids 5 years and older
Science shows that by age 5, children are developmentally ready to learn and benefit from digital media tools. In moderation, these can be valuable in many ways, especially when a caregiver engages, too.
Since every child and family is unique, the AAP doesn’t give an exact screen time suggestion for kids in that age range. Instead, they recommend that parents set consistent time limits each day and balance screen time with the other necessities for kids’ health – especially getting enough sleep, exercise, play, reading time, and quality, in-person social interactions. The AAP offers a tool called the Family Media Use Plan to help parents create a balanced plan that will work well for their family.
General recommendations for screen time
Most parents have probably resorted to letting their child watch a show or play on a tablet while they cook dinner, take an important phone call – or honestly, just have a mental health break. Doing that every now and then isn’t harmful, and as many people worry, it certainly doesn’t make you a bad parent. The goal is to understand the screentime recommendations for your child’s age and find a healthy balance that works for your family.
Here are some basic guidelines around screen time at home that pediatricians recommend:
- No screens during mealtimes
- No screens in bedrooms
- “Unplug” two hours before bed and wait one hour after waking up in the morning
- Parents should set up parental controls to limit screen time and monitor content on digital devices and accounts
- For older kids, make a point to always know who your child is communicating with online
- Try to have open communication about screen time and media habits. It’s recommended to establish boundaries, explain the reasoning behind them, and stay consistent. (Setting a timer for younger kids can be a helpful tool.)
Ways to limit screen time, and healthy alternatives to focus on instead
How do you strike a balance so your kids are spending their time engaged in a variety of things that don’t all involve screens? Here are some tips to help parents and caregivers manage screen time, make more time for those wholesome “unplugged” activities, and settle into healthy routines at home.
1. Set the example
It may not always seem like it, but kids pay attention. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work well for most of them. Parents must also follow the house screen time rules. Is one of your rules that no screens are allowed during dinner or family time? That means Mom or Dad shouldn’t be pulling out their phone either.
And imagine things from their shoes. As a parent, where you place your attention often implies your priority at the time. If kids see their parents choosing their phones (or other media) over quality time with them, it can be harmful for their mental health, as well as family relationships.
Additionally, research shows that the more parents are absorbed in their own devices, the more likely children are to act out for attention. To help children be more engaged in the offline world, parents should model that themselves. Give kids opportunities to have lots of in-person connections and interactions, and to explore their community and the outdoors.
2. Schedule screen time
Limiting screen time doesn’t mean banning electronics altogether. But know that being in front of a screen does switch a child’s brain to passive mode. That’s why it’s important to schedule screen time strategically. Try saving the morning hours for imaginative activities because that’s when their minds are sharper.
When it comes to allowing screen time, afternoon is best. This is when the sun is at its hottest and children have likely already tired themselves out. Also, try to make sure that the screen time your child does have comes in short intervals – make a goal of 30 minutes and draw the line at an hour, at most. Remember to have all electronics turned off or stashed away at least two hours before bedtime.
3. Keep screens out of the bedroom
Screens should be kept out of the bedroom throughout the year – even over the summer and on school breaks when there’s temptation to let some rules loosen up. Getting regular, quality sleep is crucial for your child’s mental and physical health and development. Plus, research shows that the presence of a TV or small screen in the bedroom can cause shorter and less restful sleep.
That’s why young children shouldn’t have tablets, cell phones or TVs in their bedrooms. And it’s never too late to place those rules on older children and teenagers.
4. Spend quiet time outside
Research shows that nature is key to children’s health. Electronic games and educational TV shows can exercise the brain, but they can also overstimulate it. By spending time surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature instead, children can peacefully engage their brain and use their five senses. Playing outdoors also nurtures children’s emotional, intellectual and physical development.
Make a habit of spending time in nature every day. Whether it’s taking a daily walk around the neighborhood, visiting a lake, or having a scavenger hunt at a park.
5. Read, read, read
Not all activities have to be done outdoors. Encourage your kids to read more by having family reading time, visiting the library or giving them a list of books to tackle over school breaks.
Besides opening the door to different worlds, the benefits of reading usher in better speech skills, reading comprehension, logical thinking and more. When possible, try to have your child read out of a printed book or comic versus a digital format.
6. Play sports – or just play!
Organized sports are a great way to get children involved in exercise and team building. If children are looking for entry-level teams, check your city’s parks and recreation signup dates. Likewise, playing outside with friends gives children more chances to make new friends or build stronger bonds with familiar ones. This unstructured time with other kids also helps build social skills, including empathy.
General playtime at home is also critical for kids’ growth and helps develop their imaginations. Need ideas?
- Make a fort out of pillows and blankets
- Have a Lego building competition
- Jump in puddles
- Have a dance party
- Plan a treasure hunt
- Act out a scene in their favorite fairy tale
- Have a make-your-own-pizza night (and get creative)
7. Plan ahead for screen-free road trips
Long car rides are one of the most tempting times to loosen the usual rules about screen time. Whether you’re planning a weekend road trip or a vacation that spans a longer time, you can prepare ahead of time for ways to successfully limit screens on the road. Bring activities, books, family car games, or choose an audiobook to listen to along the way.
There are also lots of fun ways to involve kids in the planning aspect of the trip. Use a traditional map to find and mark an interesting route, or research your destination by reading travel books out loud as a family and bookmarking what everyone would like to do.
8. Have assigned chores
Getting kids to chip in with housework is great for both children and parents. It teaches kids lifelong lessons of responsibility, teamwork and feeling pride in a job well done. Have a family meeting to talk about chores and plan out who will do what.
Write down the list and allow kids to cross them off once they’re completed. There can also be rewards involved. For example, making the bed and mowing the lawn could each equal a couple of dollars in allowance or a chance to choose what’s for dinner. And you can put music on while the family is cleaning together to make it more fun.
Even if your family always seems to be busy doing different activities, remember that it’s important to have downtime, too. Besides the benefits of resting, boredom has been proven to help stimulate the creative processes in the brain. So don’t be afraid to leave free periods of time on your calendar. (In fact, if you’re really busy, blocking off that time before the schedule fills up is encouraged.) Talk with your children to come up with a list of non-screen-related activities they like to do. Then when they’re bored, you can refer them to their list or encourage them to use their imagination.
Looking for more information about screen time?
If you have questions or concerns about screen time, your child’s pediatrician is a great resource to talk to. They’ll have medically based information about media use along with recommendations for finding a healthy balance at home. They can help you develop a plan based on your goals and what will work best for your individual child.