Screen Time: Everything Parents Should Know

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“Screen time” doesn’t have to be a dirty word or a guilty secret among modern-day parents. In fact, studies don’t necessarily agree about how much screen time is too much. We dug into the research to understand the debate and to identify common recommendations.

It all boils down to four key tips: use screens rarely with kids under 2; don’t use screens as a crutch for emotional regulation; restrict screen access before bedtime for better sleep; and focus on screen time quality versus quantity.  

So, parents, you can breathe a sigh of relief. You’re not turning your child’s brain to mush by letting them watch a show while you get ready for work. On the flip side, if you’re concerned that your child is too attached to screens, we also have some fun alternative activities to kickstart a screen time diet.


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How dangerous is screen time?

Current research gives mixed signals about screen time dangers, and some studies even point out some benefits of screen time for adolescents. Everyone seems to agree that screens aren’t helpful for children under the age of 2 and that daily screen time should be limited to an hour or less for preschoolers. Adolescents also benefit from limited screen time, although those limits aren’t universally defined by researchers. 

Let’s take a look at some studies that point to the disadvantages of screen time for children:

  • According to a 2022 BioMed Central Public Health study, preschoolers exposed to more screen time were more likely to be “developmentally vulnerable.” The same conclusion appeared in a 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics.
  • In 2023, a JAMA Pediatrics study found 3- to 5-year-olds were more emotionally reactive and demonstrated less cognitive functioning if their parents routinely used mobile devices to calm them.  
  • The authors of a Journal of Adolescent Health 2023 study report that children 9 to 10 years old were more likely to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder if they had “longer total screen time” exposure, especially related to video games or watching videos.
  • In 2018, a British Medical Journal study linked “higher levels of screen time” with an increased likelihood of obesity and depression in children and adolescents. The authors acknowledged that “small amounts” of screen time aren’t harmful—and may actually be beneficial—but didn’t define a healthy amount of screen time.

Here are a few studies that say screen time isn’t nearly as harmful as everyone seems to think:

  • A Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 2019 study noted a parabolic relationship between screen time and psychosocial functioning. In plain terms, the kids who had a little bit of screen time each day demonstrated better development than kids who had no screen time or high screen time. The study’s authors note that screen time quality and caregiver engagement likely play a more significant role in how screen time affects children’s development than sheer quantity alone. 
  • The same parabolic effect appears in a Child Development Journal 2017 study, whose authors take a firmer stance in declaring that screen time limits aren’t useful or necessary. 
  • The authors of an International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2020 study take issue with the inconsistent and short-term methodologies of other screen time studies and suggest future researchers focus on thereen use vs. screen time. 
  • A 2017 Translational Journal study lists the benefits of watching TV, such as improved imagination, and playing video games, such as increased spatial processing, creativity, and problem-solving.

Focus on quality screen time

All screen time isn’t created equal, which is one of the flaws in screen time research—it often fails to define or categorize screen time. Typically, parents tally up total screen time for these studies without differentiating between time spent playing math games on the tablet, watching a sports game with the family, or FaceTiming with relatives. Some of this tallied time may count as social and educational activities that could outweigh the disadvantages of screen time.

Recent screen time studies have begun to focus more on quality versus quantity. Some examples of quality screen time include:

  • Age-appropriate stretching and exercise videos
  • Video calls with family members
  • Read-along apps
  • Educational games and courses
  • Looking through family photos

What about blue light exposure?

Blue light blocker for tablets

Amazon.com price as of post date. Read full disclaimer.

All screens emit blue light, which decreases melatonin levels and can interfere with sleep and circadian rhythms. That’s true at any age, so it’s important to establish a healthy sleep routine for yourself and your children—turn off all screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime. 

The American Optometric Association (AOA) also recommends avoiding blue light because it can cause headaches, dry eyes, and blurred vision. If your child wears glasses, make sure the lens has a blue light-blocking coating. You can also purchase blue light filters for TV screens, tablets, and cell phones.

How much screen time is too much?

Pediatricians and researchers don’t seem to agree about screen time limits for children over the age of 4. That said, here’s a conservative list of screen time limits by age based on recommendations from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization:

  • Children younger than 2 years: Avoid all screen time except video calls to family.
  • 2- to 5-year-olds: Limit screen time to 1 hour per weekday.
  • 6-year-olds and up: Limit non-educational screen time as much as possible, aiming for 2 hours or less per weekday.

Of course, things will get complicated as your child progresses through school and needs to use a computer for research or writing projects. The world of social media opens up another hurdle to work through. Ultimately, the key is to limit mindless media consumption. 

Is screen time ever okay?

Yes, let me go ahead and give you permission (not that you need it) to plonk your child in front of a screen when you just can’t take it anymore. Sometimes we don’t always have the patience, energy, or support needed to be a “perfect parent,” and that’s okay.

Life’s a balancing act. If you can think of something that’ll keep your kid busy besides a screen-based activity, choose that instead. (Scroll down for some ideas.)

For when you just gotta
Bluey
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But if you need to reach for a screen to protect your own sanity, do it. Try to make sure it’s something educational or social—like a spelling game or a video call—but if nothing but Bluey will do the trick, put it on. (Tumble Leaf, Peppa Pig, and Netflix’s Puffin Rock are some other low-key kids shows that mix calm pacing with educational content.)

As long as you don’t fall into the habit of doing that for hours on end and still allow your child to self-soothe without screens, the research suggests they’ll be fine. 

What are some signs of screen addiction in kids?

Researchers from the University of Michigan say that a child’s screen use may be detrimental if it interferes with other activities, causes conflicts, and seems to be the only thing they think about. 

Other possible signs of screen addiction in kids include the following:

  • Agitation when unable to use screened devices
  • Going behind the parent’s back to get more screen time
  • Loss of interest in other activities
  • An inability to stop using screened devices when asked or required 
  • An inability to self-soothe without screen media

These warning signs can appear at any age.

How can I put my family on a screen time diet?

If you’re concerned that your children are getting too much low-quality screen time, you can try a screen time diet. Try it for a few weeks to see if there’s a difference in how you and your children feel and act. If you see positive results, keep going. 

You can cut screen time cold turkey, but slowly cutting back on screen time may lead to fewer meltdowns, especially if your children (and you) are used to using screens to soothe big emotions.

You’ll need to set a good example, so be prepared to address your own screen time habits. One of the most important things you can do is demonstrate a tolerance for quiet time without needing to scroll through your phone. 

Ask Alexa to play some music and listen to it closely. Keep Sudoku or crossword puzzle books in the living room and tackle one instead of playing Farmville. Or just sit and close your eyes for a little while. If you need to do something purposeful with your phone, like look up directions or check a restaurant menu, announce what you’re doing, so your child knows why the phone is out. Show that it’s a tool, not an escape.

Alternative activities

Before kicking screens to the curb, make sure you have a list of alternative activities planned. Here are some of our favorite ideas:

Reading app alternative

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  • Read: It’s impossible for a kid to read too much, and it’s also an excellent self-soothing activity. If your child is too young to read on their own, consider the LeapFrog LeapReader System. It’s like a learn-to-read app but without a screen. 
  • Seek-and-Find books: Whether it’s a Highlight’s style hidden picture puzzle or a tricky Where’s Waldo book, challenge your child to find every item. It should keep them focused for a while.
  • Legos: Speaking of challenges, ask your child to make you something out of Legos, like a duck or a table. Make tougher requests over time. 
  • I Spy: Teach your child how to stave off boredom in the car or at a restaurant by playing a game of I Spy. Or, ask them to tell you a story about something you see. This simple game is a great introduction to mindfulness.
  • Play-Doh: Few things are as fun as Play-Doh, and it doesn’t require much supervision. Let your child make a Play-Doh dinner while you make a real one. 
  • Board game or puzzle night: Instead of dispersing to the couch for TV time, break out a board game after dinner. Or, put together puzzles as a family.
  • Play music and dance: Turn on a fun playlist and dance it out. Teach your kid some old-school moves!
  • Sports and outdoorsy activities: The possibilities are endless with outdoor activities, and you often don’t need much equipment. Try basketball, T-ball, a round of catch, badminton, balance challenges, hula-hooping, bocce ball, dance-offs, corn hole, soccer, croquet, mini golf, hopscotch, jump rope, roller skating, bike riding, or relay races. Your presence is still important even if you don’t have the energy to play.
  • Indoor playground: If you don’t have a good outdoor play space, or you need a backup plan for rainy days, consider indoor playground equipment. Compact climbing frames, trampolines, balance beams, and even swings can all help your child stay active without taking up too much space inside. 
  • Your little helper: Yes, it’s faster (and perhaps less messy) to cook, clean, or pay bills without your child attempting to help, but it can be a chance to spend quality time together and teach them a little independence. Check out our list of safe things kids can do in the kitchen based on their age.

Restricting screen access

Parents have tons of tools at their disposal to limit screen time. We recommend a multi-layered approach.

Best parental control
  • Start with a router-based control like Bark Home to shut down the Internet throughout your entire home as needed.
  • Install parental control pps on your child's mobile devices and set up screen time schedules and limits.
  • Set up child accounts on TV streaming services and gaming consoles. Turn on screen time limits.

Reminding kids to move

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Break screen time sessions into smaller chunks by peppering activity breaks across the day, like every 20 minutes or so. Do a little stretch routine with your child or walk around the block. This can prevent them from feeling like a screen-time slug (I’m sure we’ve all been there) and get them used to pausing their screen activities. 

Use a kids’ smartwatch that turns an active lifestyle into a virtual game, like the Gabb Watch 2 or the Xplora X5 Play, to give your child extra incentive to get up and move.

Creating screen-free zones or times

To help your kids put their devices down, create screen-free zones throughout your home. Decide what makes sense for your family, and be prepared to follow the rules yourself.

For example, you might designate bedrooms as screen-free zones and insist on no screens being present at the dinner table.

FAQ

In an interview with NewYork-Presbytarian Hospital, pediatrician Dr. Jennifer F. Cross advised parents to avoid giving toddlers screens because it distracts them from observing the world around them—which is critical for their development.

Dr. Cross calls this “tunnel vision,” referring to the fact that kids often end up glued to the screen and unaware of what’s going on around them. Whether they’re out for a walk in the stroller, eating at a restaurant, attending a sports game, or just visiting with family, kids need to watch how people interact, hear new sounds, and get new visual input to make new connections in their brains. Screen-based media doesn’t generate the same kind of sensory experiences, nor does it give immediate neural feedback when children make sounds or gestures.

Disclaimer

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Cathy Habas
Written by
Cathy Habas
With over eight years of experience as a content writer, Cathy has a knack for untangling complex information. Her natural curiosity and ability to empathize help Cathy offer insightful, friendly advice. She believes in empowering readers who may not feel confident about a purchase, project, or topic. Cathy earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Indiana University Southeast and began her professional writing career immediately after graduation. She is a certified Safe Sleep Ambassador and has contributed to sites like Safety.com, Reviews.com, Hunker, and Thumbtack. Cathy’s pride and joy is her Appaloosa “Chacos.” She also likes to crochet while watching stand-up comedy specials on Netflix.

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