Screen Time and Kids: Striking the Right Balance for Healthy Development

Mother and daughter using a tablet.

When you take into consideration all of the televisions, computers, tablets, and phones, the average American household has more screens than people. Screens are an increasingly prominent part of modern life, to the point that it can be difficult to keep even babies away from them. The screens probably aren’t going anywhere, so it’s worthwhile to be intentional with the hows, whys, and whens of your family’s screen use.

Negative Effects of Screen Time Overuse

Should screen time be limited? Like most things in life, there’s no ideal screen time limit or number that works for everyone. Instead, the goal with screen use is to maintain a healthy balance that minimizes any negative impacts now and down the road. Too much screen time can cause a number of problems for children including:

  • Trouble sleeping
    • Bright light from a screen decreases melatonin production, making it harder to fall asleep.
    • Active interaction with a device prevents our minds from entering a state of rest.
  • Decreased social interaction.
  • Decline in physical activity and time spent outside.
  • Mood changes
    • While the jury is still out on the connection between general screen time and emotional health, there is evidence that too much screen time spent in certain types of apps is associated with depression and anxiety.
    • Some kids and teens can also become dependent and feel anxious without a device.
  • Weight changes
    • Some studies have shown a link between excess screen time and obesity in both childhood and beyond.

Watch for these signs to gauge whether your child is overusing screens.

10 Ideas for Balancing Screen Time

Avoiding screens entirely probably isn’t practical if you want your child to function in the mainstream world. But there are steps you can take to build healthy screen habits your child can carry into adulthood.

  1. Turn off background screens: If there’s always a TV on in the background, it teaches your child to expect screens and to live in a constant state of semi-distraction.
  2. Set an example by managing your own screen habits with a basic system of rules you create for yourself. Examples might be no screens while driving, eating, or playing with your kids.
  3. For younger kids, preview content in advance, to ensure it is developmentally appropriate.
  4. Watch alongside your child, so you can answer questions and engage in real-time conversation.
  5. As your child gets older, have an open dialogue about the non-reality of advertising and social media.
  6. Encourage active screen time, like puzzles, brain teasers, educational videos, language learning apps, and more. Anything that engages their brains is likely better than scrolling social media.
  7. Pay attention to what your child consumes and consider parental control options from day one. You can always loosen controls, but it will be harder to clamp down later.
  8. Eliminate screens 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
  9. Consider gathering up everyone’s devices in a central family charging station.
  10. Have no-screen hours or days to help remind everyone in the family that there are many more engaging things to do both in and outside the house.

What’s a Healthy Screen Time by Age

The answer to question “how much screen time for kids” varies by the child. Some kids can tolerate more screentime without behavior changes. Healthy boundaries will also change, and become more nuanced, as your child grows up, uses more screens and school, and wants to access social media. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has established these guidelines.

0 – 18 Months: No screen time, except video chatting with loved ones.
18 – 24 Months: Interactive, educational content only, with caregiver participation. At this age, children shouldn’t be left unattended with a screen, but can engage with curated content alongside an adult.
2 – 5 Years: Non-educational content should be limited to one hour per day during the week, and three hours per day on the weekends. Educational content has no official limit and is left to the discretion of the caregiver.
5 Years and Above: The AACAP offers no additional guidelines after the age of 5. Instead, allow your child to start managing their own screen time, with guardrails. The idea is to maintain healthy habits, while understanding that habits might look different from family to family or from kid to kid.

Should screen time always be limited?

How might we compare time spent reading on an eReader to time spent playing a virtual reality exercise game? What about time spent doing homework on a laptop? Many professional health authorities have determined there is no one-size-fits-all approach to screens.

Once your child enters school, the amount of time they are spending with screens isn’t the most important factor on which to focus. Instead, parents should keep an eye on the type of content children are consuming and on helping kids maintain a balance with other aspects of life like social interaction, activity, play, life skills, chores, etc.

In case you forgot, you’re on a screen right now. The fact that you’re using it to ask questions about the impact of technology on your child’s development is excellent. Keep up that engaged and curious parenting style as your child grows and you’re both going to thrive.

Toby Cox, M.D., MPH

Toby Cox, M.D., MPH

Toby practices pediatrics in our West Jordan office.

a happy father receives a kiss from his son

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