Do Your Kids Spend Too Much Time in Front of a Screen?

Limits recommended for young children, moderation for older ones

Boy and girl smile while playing video game on laptop.

Limits recommended for young children, moderation for older ones

Screen time — time spent in front of smartphones, computers, tablets and television — is an inescapable part of family life today.

But when it comes to children and screen time, there are risks to consider. Excessive screen time can have negative effects on sleep, attention and learning, and can lead to obesity and depression.

But how much is too much screen time for kids?

It depends. Every child is different and so is the way they use and experience media. Parents should understand that they play an important role in their children’s use of electronic devices and take that seriously.

What do pediatricians recommend?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers a family media plan tool to help parents create a media use plan that is specific to their family and in line with making healthy choices.

“Media should in no way replace time spent doing homework, interacting with others, family time, outdoor play and exercise,” says Annemarie Selaya, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center in Hillcrest.

In the United States, children ages 2 to 5 on average spend more than two hours a day looking at a screen, which exceeds the recommended screen time guidelines for children that age, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics.

AAP recommends limiting screen time for children ages 2 to 5 to no more than 1 hour per day of high-quality programming and to help them understand what they are seeing.

Studies show teenagers spend up to 9 hours a day watching or using screens. AAP doesn’t recommend a specific amount of screen time for older children. Instead, it encourages parents to develop media use plans that are appropriate for their child’s age, health temperament and developmental stage.

Here are six tips to you help make screen time work for your family, including your teens.

1. Go digital together

Join your kids in digital spaces as another way to spend time together.

Spend time with your teen watching TV, playing games or going online. Use this time as a chance to talk and learn together.

2. Keep digital-free zones at home

Electronics can become addicting for some children. Some can become moody and withdrawn with excessive use. “It is extremely helpful for families to establish baseline limits on media use and to make electronics off limits at certain times, such as during meals,” Dr. Selaya says.

This also goes for bedtime. Turn off all screens at least an hour before bedtime to help make sure your child gets enough sleep.

3. Be picky with apps and video games

Research video and computer games before letting your teen get them. Look at the ratings, which can run from EC (early childhood) to AO (adults only). Teens probably should be limited to games rated T (teens) or younger.

Remember quality counts when it comes to time spent in front of a screen. Zoning out playing video games isn’t the same as zooming and spending quality time with grandma. The more interaction, the more learning.

4. Communicate boundaries

Social media can help teens develop identity. So, regular online interaction with peers is fine. But certain type of online behavior and media consumption can lead to problems.

Children may be exposed to sex and violence, dangerous stunts they might try to imitate, negative stereotypes, cyberbullies and predators, misleading or inaccurate information. Excessive screen time can also get in the way of getting exercise and can contribute to obesity and sleep problems.

It’s important to:

  • Teach your teen about safe internet and social media use.
  • Make sure they know the dangers of sharing private information online, cyberbullying and sexting.
  • Learn about and use parental control of screen-based devices.
  • Take steps that can help prevent tired, sore eyes in children.​​

5. Walk the walk

Model healthy device use for your kids by setting part of your own day for device-free experiences. When possible, offer your kids the gift of your full attention. That means turning off or muting your phone during family times.

6. Prepare for mistakes

Just like in real life, your kids are going to make mistakes as digital citizens. Use these as teachable moments so that they can learn and grow.

“The best way to prevent teens from engaging in inappropriate social media behaviors is to maintain good communication with them and teach proper online etiquette,” Dr. Selaya says. “Parents need to be open- minded and learn more about the online world.”

Keeping busy in the real world

Overall, physical activity and social interaction remain crucial to healthy child development.

“Children must be given the skills to entertain themselves without electronics and the opportunity to interact with others,” says Dr. Selaya. “These are basic life skills that will remain important no matter how widespread electronics become. Kids should have the chance to create things without being guided by electronics. No app can replace blocks and books.”

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