Families always have so much on their plates. And during the height of the pandemic, screen time skyrocketed for a lot of kids, for many reasons that were outside parents’ control. What if instead of asking how much screen time is too much, we tackled how to improve screen time and make it work better for your family?
Here’s what we think parents need to know about screen time:
- How the screen is used matters more than the screen itself. Interactive screen time, like playing an educational game or FaceTiming a friend or family member, is better than “passive” screen use, like watching TV or videos on a tablet. When it comes to TV time, the research shows some small effects on things like rates of childhood obesity, but no effect on things like test scores later in life. And, importantly, studies on screen use haven’t clearly separated out other variables that could affect children’s outcomes—so it’s hard to blame television time on its own.
- Not all screen time is created equal. Educational screen time includes time spent on age-appropriate educational apps (like Endless Reader, Endless Numbers, or Bedtime Math); using websites like BrainPOP or Khan Academy; and watching shows that offer real educational value. Social time might include FaceTime or Zoom calls with family members or friends, or virtual activities with a physical component, like YouTube yoga or virtual dance classes or PE sessions with Coach Joe. And of course, entertainment time is just that—time your kids spend on screens relaxing. That has its place, too.
- There’s no established “right amount” of screen time, but in general, no more than a couple hours a day seems reasonable for most kids (depending on their age). Different organizations suggest different limits: For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics says children under 5 should limit screen use to one hour per day, while children under 2 should use screens only for video chatting. The World Health Organization recommends that children under 1 have no exposure to screens, while children from 2-4 have a limit of one hour of “sedentary” screen time.
- Screens do affect sleep. Studies consistently show that the more time all people (including kids) spend on screens, the less well they sleep. This is especially true if we’re using screens right before falling asleep.
- Bottom line: There’s no particular amount of screen time that is the cut-off between well-adjusted, happy children and little demons. But that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t set limits on screen use, and create rules that work for you about how and when screens are used.
Here are 5 ways parents can improve (and yes, limit) screen use in their homes:
Separate your family’s screen use into three different buckets.
Screen time for learning, socializing, and entertainment serves different purposes. You want to aim for the right balance of the three buckets for your family. The good news is, there’s a lot of great educational programming out there these days, so you might be able to trick your children into trading some of their “just for fun” screen time for more educational stuff, simply by turning on something different.
Create a set of family screen rules.
Maybe you all set aside screens during meals. Try only allowing one screen at a time (so no phone or tablet use while the TV is on). You can also differentiate between big screens and small screens. This allows you to put a limit on the time your kids spend watching short bits of clickable content on a tablet, but still enjoy a show or movie together. Whatever rules you set, try to follow them yourself (at least, in front of your children!) so you’re modeling healthy screen habits.
Observe how your kids react to screens.
How much is “too much” is really going to depend on your kids’ personalities, and only you (and they) know their limits. If you’re starting to see signs of screen overload in their behavior—they’re acting like zombies, or they can’t transition away from the TV without a meltdown, or they’re demanding screens during activities you used to enjoy screen-free, like meals—then it might be time to set new limits.
Avoid screen use before bed.
This is probably good for all of us, but it’s especially important for kids. In the hour before bedtime, focus on reading and relaxing, not screens. Listening to audio stories can be a great, screen-free way for young children to relax before bed while you’re doing dinner clean-up.
Use screens in ways that work for you.
This might mean aligning screen time to the times when you really need to get something done—like make dinner or finish your own work day—or when you need a break or some quiet time.
At the end of the day:
As parents, we all have different tools at our disposal to take care of our kids and get through the days. Screens are one tool. We shouldn’t be using them all the time, but it’s also totally fine—and even beneficial—to use screens in the ways that work for your family.