Friend or Foe? The Ultimate Screen Time Guide For Kids

Is your kid addicted to the screen, whether it’s the tablet, computer, or a gaming console? Are you wondering how much you should be limiting their time in front of electronics and if they’re getting anything out of it?

If you’re wondering about it, you should pat yourself on the back. That means you’re a concerned, involved parent.

It’s a subject I’ve wrestled with too. At a time when some of the parents surrounding me had their children playing with tablets as soon as they could walk, I worried about how strict I was about their screen time. I let them watch cartoons on television, but I drew the line at letting my toddler play with my phone, a tablet, or a video game.

Part of me worried it wasn’t good for them at such a young age, but another part of me worried they would fall behind their peers when it came to valuable skills about technology. Was I potentially stymying the next Steve Jobs because I was overthinking things or being old-fashioned?

Let’s look at the pros and cons of screen time, as well as some statistics and recommendations.


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Screen Time Statistics

Kids on tablets and phones (1)

Before you can figure out what might be an appropriate amount of screen time for your young child, let’s look at recommendations and statistics.

How Much Time Is Spent On Screens?

It’s hard to gauge precisely how much time young children are spending in front of screens. But some organizations have attempted to clock it. Active Healthy Kids Canada said (source):

3 to 5 year olds engaged in two hours every day of screen time in 2014.

When you consider that it’s recommended preschoolers sleep for 10 to 13 hours per day, that’s a big chunk of their day (source). Let’s say a child sleeps 12 hours every day, leaving 12 hours for other activities. At two hours per day, screen time accounts for one-sixth of their awake hours during the day.

How Many Young Kids Have Devices?

Many young children don’t have their own devices — but that changes fairly soon during their school years.

In the U.S., approximately 45 percent of children ages 10 to 12 have a smartphone and a service plan, with 16 percent of them having that by age 8 (source).

But just because they don’t have their own devices, it doesn’t mean they don’t have access to them. Most households have a smartphone, tablet, or other kind of screen options for kids.

What Are the Recommendations?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children between the ages of 2 to 5 have at most one hour of screen time per day (source).

But for babies under the age of 18 months, the recommendations are stricter.

The AAP recommends babies under the age of 18 months should not use any digital media, like tablets, phones, and television (with the exception of video calls).

That’s because it can cause issues such as overstimulation, sleep problems, and a lack of bonding time between baby and parents.

Should We Be Worried?

Worried might be overselling it a bit, but all parents should be at least concerned with the subject.

Research has shown that screen time is habit forming, which makes sense. Just watch anyone who tries to walk away from a video game. If you play once, you want to play again to see if you can do better.

But research also shows that it’s easiest to instill healthy routines regarding screen time now when your child is under 5 years old than it is later. It’s just like any other habit, like healthy eating and getting exercise — the earlier you make it a habit, the better off you’ll be.


Effects of Screens on Children

Screen time can be bad, but it can also be good. The key is steering your child toward activities that will be helpful to their development rather than harmful. Screens can be a useful tool, or it can be a detriment in your child’s life.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with you. As the parent of a young child, you are in total control of how much screen time they get — unless their grandparents spoil them when you aren’t around. But even when your children are with caregivers, you should make your preference be known about how much screen time you want them — or don’t want them — to have.

What the Science Says About Screens

Before you start making rash decisions about how much, or how little, screen time to give your kids, you might want to learn about what the science says about the benefits and drawbacks to screen time.

The Good Things About Screens

There are positive aspects to screen time, but you’re less likely to hear about those than you are some of the negative aspects about it. So let’s look at how your child might benefit from a limited amount of screen time.

On the surface, this statement might not seem true. Aren’t experts always warning about the hazards of childhood obesity and how inactivity plays a role? That’s true, but there are exceptions to that rule.

Video games that encourage physical activity, such as dancing games and sports games on the Wii, are good for your child’s fitness.

We own a Wii at my house, although it’s not something we use daily. I’m in good shape and like to run several times a week, but after five minutes of the boxing game on the Wii, I’m sweating and breathing extremely hard. It’s a great workout.

When it comes to television time, it can be beneficial if the program is selected carefully (source). Shows like Sesame Street have a long history of encouraging and promoting learning for children, whether it is counting with The Count or singing along with the catchy songs.

It can help them learn new words, expanding their vocabulary.

Less snacking cuts down on a child’s weight, which is good when it comes to childhood obesity.

In this day and age, knowing how to effectively use a computer can be a massive advantage in the workplace. As the global economy further shifts to a more technology-based workforce, computer literacy is more important than ever.


The Dark Side of Screen Time

While there are upsides to limited screen time, there is a dark side as well, particularly for those who aren’t limited when it comes to how much time is spent on the screens.

With childhood obesity on the rise, part of the blame definitely goes to screen time. Every minute a child sits down for a video game or to play on the tablet, it means they aren’t running around burning off calories.

Too much sitting can not only lead to increased weight, but it is bad for overall longevity as well (source). Some doctors even refer to sitting as the new smoking — it’s that bad for you. It can lead to Type 2 diabetes, along with other medical conditions.

Screen time can be overstimulating for both children and adults. Using electronics too much can make it harder for a child to fall asleep, stay asleep, and get a good quality of sleep (source). That’s especially true when devices are used right before bedtime.

Screens aren’t great for your child’s vision, when used to excess. Doctors are seeing more dry eye disease, which they are chalking up to screen time. When you use a screen, it can affect how often you blink, which can eventually cause dry eyes.

It can also cause strain from how close the devices are held and the brightness of the screens which can lead to eye strain.

While the jury is still out on this one, many scientists believe too much EMF exposure may harm people’s brains. Considering all the other possible negative effects, limiting or completely eliminating the amount of time children spend with a phone is a good idea, just to hedge your bets.

While there may be some educational benefits to screen time when used properly and limited in scope, excess time or the wrong type of screen time usage can hurt educational development. Children who spend too much time on screens don’t develop their critical thinking, reflection, and imagination as much as kids with limited screen time do.

It doesn’t take much imagination to play a video game or watch tv, but it does require imagination to think up your own games or to daydream. That’s something kids with too much screen time miss out on.

If your child is in kindergarten, you might be surprised to find they are likely getting some screen time while at school. I wouldn’t worry about the screen time they have there — it is likely well thought out with a focus on education. Plus, they have recess and sometimes physical education class too, so they are up and moving throughout the day also.

Many educational pursuits take time and effort, such as learning to play an instrument and solve a complicated math problem. When kids get used to fast-paced games and instant gratification, it can cause them to become frustrated when they have to work hard to achieve things that take more work.

Reading time is important to a child’s education, even before they learn to read themselves. It’s crucial parents read to their children to instill a love of books and help with language development. It leaves far less time for that if a child is engaged with a screen all day.

Most screen time children typically have, or want to have, can be pretty fast-paced. That can lead to a lack of concentration, or trouble focusing, when things are slower paced. That includes the classroom. And if they can’t concentrate, they run the risk of falling behind on the material that’s being studied.

When too much screen time is allowed, it can cause a child to miss out on those important connections they should be making with other people.

As a family, you won’t spend as much time together. And if they are spending hours with their screens throughout the day, your children won’t have as much time to make solid friendships. Think back to the friendships of your youth, those first real friends you made — those initial friendships are some of the most important relationships many of us will have in our lives.

Exercise is a known mood booster. And if a child is playing on their screens for hours a day, they aren’t getting exercise and its mood-enhancing benefits. That can increase the amount of depression a child can feel, as can the feelings of isolation that can develop from spending more time with screens than with friends.


Tips to Reduce Screen Time

It can feel like an uphill battle at times to get your child to put down the screen. But the good news is, the sooner you start instilling better habits for this, the easier it will be. It’s much harder to try to implement these rules after your child has already started becoming too attached to its screen time.

1. Be a Great Example

It’s unreasonable for your children to stay off their screens or to believe that’s best for them when they see you glued to yours. If you limit your own screen time, it will show them that you’re serious about developing good habits.

That’s the thing about being a parent — you need to be aware your child is always watching you. They don’t just listen to our words, they watch our actions and our behaviors. They take cues and form opinions from that.

So make sure you’re engaging with your child instead of constantly answering texts or surfing the web. If you have to check your emails for work, try to do that after your child goes to bed for the night.

2. Set Limits

Follow the advice of the experts and set time limits on the screen time you let your children have. A good starting point for children 5 and under is one hour a day.

But don’t stop just at limiting time. You should also limit the type of screens they use, There is no reason they should be playing with your phone at all at that age. Educational television can be a healthy part of their day as long as it doesn’t exceed the limit you’ve set for it.

As your kids get older, you will also want to consider limiting the type of content they are able to access on their devices to protect them from inappropriate or dangerous situations.

3. Keep Track of Time

It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re busy. If you’re not actively logging how much screen time your child is getting, you’re likely underestimating it. To be certain they aren’t exceeding the limit you’ve set up, you need to watch the clock.

You can use the timer on your oven to keep an exact track of time. You can set it for 30 minutes and once that beeper goes off, your child has to stop their screen time. Over time, they’ll know that beep means no more screen time for a while and it will help you avoid any whining or arguments.

4. Keep It Active

You can use your child’s screen time as a way to keep them active. Perhaps you can challenge your child to a game of Wii Sports. There are a number of interactive sports games or dances you can do with your child.

If you’re watching television, you can do simple exercises during the commercials, such as jumping jacks or marching in place. That will get their heart rates going, and although it will only be a few minutes at a time, it’s definitely better than remaining sitting the whole time.

5. Eat Meals at Your Table

By eating dinner at your family’s table, you won’t be crowded around the television watching it as you eat. That will cut back on your child’s screen time and allow them to interact more with the people around them.

It will also let them pay attention to their body’s cues so they will be able to tell when they are feeling full instead of continuing to eat because they’re more absorbed on the television in front of them.

6. Remind Them It’s An Interesting World Out There

By going outside and playing a sport with your child, taking or a walk, or spending the day at a children’s museum, they won’t be so bored that screen time will become an appealing option.

By reminding them of all the fun they can be having when they step away from the screen while they’re still young, they’ll remember that lesson when they are older.

7. Don’t Allow Electronics in Their Bedrooms

A child’s bedroom should be a place where they go to sleep, especially at a younger age. Having a screen or two in their will only encourage them to spend more time shut up in their room, away from you and their other family members.

Children shouldn’t have televisions in their rooms and they shouldn’t be allowed to fall asleep while watching one. Children, especially younger ones, don’t need computers in their bedrooms either. They can do their homework on a computer in the living room.

As they get older, making this a firm rule will cut down on the opportunity for your child to be cyberbullied without you knowing about it.

8. Bump It Up When Needed

There will be times when you may need to increase the screen time your child has, especially as they get older (source). You might decide to not count the screen time they have at school since it isn’t necessarily of their choosing.

Instead of dictating a certain time, you can talk to your child and see what they feel is reasonable. It might be a smaller amount of time on weekdays and a little longer on the weekends.

9. Don’t Give In

It can be hard to be a disciplinarian, especially for someone you love so much. But it’s because you love them that you have to be so firm. You’re doing what is best for them and that won’t always be easy.

Remind your child that you’re setting limits because you love them, not because you want to punish them or take all their fun away.

10. Cut the Cable

You probably use your computer for work, filing taxes, or keeping in touch with relatives you don’t see anymore. There are dozens of legitimate reasons to keep your computer and internet service going. But televisions are not as essential.

If you’re really dedicated to limiting your child’s screen time, getting rid of your television can help immensely. It’s best to make that move while your child is still little. An infant or a toddler won’t know what they’re missing, but if you try limiting a kindergartner or older school-aged child, you’ll meet with more resistance.


Self-Directed Play to Reduce Screen Time

Young boy playing with toys self directed play

As much as I love being a parent, I also like to have the occasional bit of time to myself with no one talking my ear off. And, like most parents, I feel like I’m being pulled in a million different directions so I don’t always have the time I’d like to have. If I didn’t have any other obligations, I could devote myself to filling all my child’s time with educational play or stimulating fun, but I don’t.

Have I suggested to my children that they watch a bit of television while I finish up work or make dinner? You bet. And I feel guilty every single time.

But as I made a more conscious effort to keep my kids away from the devices and screens at my house, I placed more of an emphasis on self-directed play.

What Is Self-Directed Play?

Self-directed play is when your child plays independently at whatever they choose. Everything they do is up to them, and you don’t micromanage one bit of it. That takes the emphasis off of you so your can get your work done, and it lets them explore in a safe environment but out from under your watchful eye too.

The kids get to call all the shots with self-directed play. There shouldn’t be instructions of any kind — whether it’s for sports or music (source). It’s all about your child discovering what they can do all on their own without any adult interference.

When they learn to play independently, it will cut down on their need to be constantly entertained someday. They’ll be able to make their own fun instead, which will be a relief to you and it will be good for them as well. Their imagination will take them far.

Although it wasn’t called self-directed play when I was younger, I remember doing a lot of it. Whether it was making mud pies in my backyard or writing song lyrics for my pretend band I formed, I had a blast when left to my own devices.

I’ve tried to make sure my children have had the time and freedom to do it as well.

How Does It Reduce Screen Time?

If your child is wrapped up in their play time, they won’t constantly be thinking of what they are missing on the screens. They’ll be having too much time to worry about that.

In addition to cutting back on the screen time, they’ll be honing those skills that experts say screen time is taking away from them, including:

  • Social skills.
  • Mental health benefits.
  • Creativity.
  • Focus.
  • Self-discipline.
  • Ability to solve problems (source).

By giving your child an entertaining alternative to screen time, they’ll be less apt to throw a fit over their time limit for electronics.

How to Cultivate Self-Directed Play

There are a number of things you can do to help your child pursue more self-directed play.

  • Turn off the TV: If the television is on, most kids are going to watch it. If you don’t want your child to be focused on the tv, you need to turn it off. That means you’ll have to watch less of it yourself, or at least save the bulk of your viewing time until after your child goes to bed.
  • Give your child the tools for engagement: That doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy your child an armload of toys. In fact, less can be more. Keeping their toys spread out on a shelf so they can see each one instead of burying them in a toy chest will keep them fresh in their mind and easy to grab.
  • Include some size-appropriate furniture: If your child wants to work on a project or a puzzle, it can help them to have a table and chair that is just the right height for them.
  • Don’t butt in: This is their time — they don’t need you stepping in to micromanage what they’re doing. Let them figure out what they’re doing all on their own, even if you see them falter a bit. Just make sure the toys are age appropriate and let them take it from there.
  • Don’t overschedule your child: Even small children are often overscheduled — there’s just so much going on these days and parents are under pressure to keep their children constantly entertained. Between tumbling classes for toddlers and other sports programs, plus their parents’ long work days, your young child might be losing their opportunities for self-directed play. Make sure they have some time set aside for that every day.

Free Kids From Screens This Summer

Young girl looking at cellphone next to the pool

This can be the summer in which you encourage your child to take a break from screens. By having some alternative activities on standby, your child might barely miss it.

Around the House

Whether you have a rainy day or a sunny one, there are plenty of activities to keep your child happy without a screen this summer at home.

  • Blow some bubbles: Young kids are fascinated by bubbles. They will chase them to the point of exhaustion. You can use that in your favor to keep them off their screens.
  • Ask for their help in the kitchen: Toddlers are usually totally interested in what you’re doing in the kitchen. If you have the time to allow them to “help” you, let your toddler give you a hand while you’re baking something or doing some light cleaning.
  • Make a craft: Kids love being crafty. Whether you’re coloring, painting, or doing some other craft, they’ll have no trouble focusing on that fun art if you’re doing it with them.

Outdoors

Outside is an entertaining place for children to be. Here are some activities that will make them want to stay out longer.

  • Swimming: Head to the local pool, whether it’s indoor or outdoor, and engage with your child in the water. They’ll love having some of your attention and you’ll both be getting exercise.
  • Meet a friend at the park: Schedule a playdate for your young child with another kid you know. If they meet at the park, they can exercise and have fun with no fights over who gets what toy.
  • Go for a walk: Sometimes a stroll through the neighborhood can be endlessly entertaining for your child. If they are still 2 or so, you might want to push them in a stroller — otherwise this activity won’t take long at all.
  • Get out a sprinkler: Go old school and bust out a backyard sprinkler for your child to run through. They’ll get activity and they’ll be having fun.
  • Break out the sidewalk chalk: This is a long-time favorite activity of children. It’s fun and it’s something they can do independently or with you — as long as you are still keeping an eye on them while outside.

In the Car

Listening to your child talk about how bored they are in the car can be enough to make you want to hand over every screen at your disposal. But instead, try one of these tips.

  • Sing songs: Turn on the radio or pop in a favorite CD of your childs. You can team up for songs they know. You’ll have fun singing with them and they’ll be so busy they won’t be able to say they are bored.
  • Offer picture books: If your child isn’t the type to get carsick, make sure to have some picture books at your disposal to give them during your ride.

The Bottom Line

The key to reducing or limiting screen time is consistency — make sure your rules apply all the time, not just when you’re busy and need a screen to keep your child occupied. Along with consistency, you need to realize it will take some effort, especially if your child already has more screen time than recommended.

Do you have any tips for reducing screen time that have worked for you? If so, share them with us in the comment section. If this article has been helpful to you, please give it a share!

1 Reader Comment

  1. Great Article. Thanks very much.

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