It's easy forkids to rack up hours of screen time a day. But too much screen time can impact a child's development and contribute to weight and sleep problems. Kids younger than 18 months shouldn't have screen time, except for video-chatting alongside adults. Limited, high-quality viewing (with an adult) is recommended for kids 18 to 24 months, and from 2 to 5 years, screen use should be capped at an hour a day. School-age kids need consistent limits, too.
What is screen time?
Any time a child spends looking at an electronic screen is considered screen time. This includes watching videos and television shows, playing video games, and using a computer, phone, or tablet.
And it adds up fast: You might not think twice about letting your child fiddle with your phone or look at a book on your tablet, and it's tempting to share silly YouTube videos or cute photos on Instagram. And then in school or on playdates, your kid may be using devices or playing games they don't have access to at home.
What about video chats with family? Do those count as screen time?
Video chats with family and friends – who live far away or are traveling away from home, for example – are considered an exception to screen time. Unlike screen time that's not interactive, or that a child views on their own, engaging in conversations with caring adults, even over a screen, lets young children practice social skills. And it's been especially useful in helping children maintain relationships with remote relatives because of COVID restrictions.
Think about ways to maximize your child's engagement during those valuable chats. You might set up regular video visits with distant relatives and prepare for those visits by having your child make something to show and talk about, or by asking your child ahead of time what they might ask during the chat, for example.
Screen time for kids: How much is too much?
When it comes to raising kids, what's ideal isn't always what's practical. It's true that there are downsides of too much screen time (see below), and giving your child a screen as an easy escape – to calm or distract them when they're bored or restless, for example – robs them of the opportunity to learn how to cope with and move past boredom or emotional discomfort.
But when you're working at home and your child has reached their recommended viewing limit for the day, it's only practical to let them exceed that ideal limit for a bit while you finish up your Zoom meeting. When you're on a trip and your child has reached their screen viewing limit – as well as their car riding limit – it's understandable that you'd make an exception for a few more miles.
And, of course, if your child is school aged and participating in virtual learning, chances are their screen time will be beyond what's ideal (though you may want to further limit non-school screen time on school days to balance the scale a bit).
It's helpful to know what's ideal, though, so parents can make informed, balanced decisions for their own families.
Here's what The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends for children:
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- Younger than 18 months: Screen time is discouraged, other than video-chatting alongside an adult.
- 18 to 24 months: Limited, high-quality programming/apps co-viewed with an adult is best. Solo viewing is discouraged.
- 2 to 5 years: Screen use should be limited to no more than 1 hour a day. Viewing should be interactive, non-violent, educational, and prosocial. Co-viewing is recommended.
- 5 years and older: Place consistent limits on daily screen time and types of media. Select and co-view media with your child. Teach your child about online safety and respect for others online.
For years, the AAP strictly recommended no screen time before age 2, and less than two hours per day after that. But the group revised its guidelines in 2016 to help parents make more informed choices about how their family uses screens.
How much screen time is common for kids?
According to Common Sense Media, children from birth to age 8 average about two and a half hours of screen media daily. Each day:
- Those younger than age 2 tally 49 minutes
- 2- to 4-year-olds watch two and a half hours
- 5- to 8-year-olds spend just over three hours on their screens
Viewing varies from child to child, though, with almost a quarter of children up to age 8 not watching any screen media and – at the other end of the spectrum – nearly a quarter of them spending over four hours daily on their screens.
Here's how children spend their screen time:
- 73% TV/video viewing
- 16% gaming
- 3% reading
- 1% homework
- 1% video-chatting
- 6% other/unknown
With so much digital media directed toward kids – from streaming videos to games and educational tools – parents rightly worry how much is too much. Experts also now emphasize that how kids use screens is just as important as how much they use them.
What are the downsides of too much screen time?
There's a strong case to be made that too much screen time can be harmful to kids. Here are some of the top concerns.
Social, emotional, and behavioral development
Parents' biggest worry is how screen time might hurt development, and there is good reason to be concerned. Kids on their screens are missing opportunities to interact with their parents, other adults, and other children.
Studies have shown that children who spend more than the recommended amount of time on their screens are more likely to demonstrate hyperactive and inattentive behavior, act impulsively, and make poorer decisions. Children who watch too much TV early on – in infancy through preschool – show delays in thinking, language, and social skills. And watching violent content may contribute to behavioral problems in children – because they're frightened or because they copy what they've watched.
Ongoing studies by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of more than 4,500 preteens found that those who spent more than two hours a day on screens scored lower on language and thinking tests than those who spent less time on their screens. And those who spend more than seven hours show a premature thinning of the cortex (the outer layer of the brain, which processes sensory information).
Being in front of a screen means your child isn't moving. It may also mean that they're exposed to food advertising and increased snacking while watching TV. Studies have confirmed that too much screen time contributes to childhood obesity and future weight gain, and reducing screen time helps reverse the trend.
One five-year study of over 3,500 children in eight countries found that children were 16 percent more likely to become overweight or obese for every extra hour of screen viewing. The same study found that every hour less of sleep was associated with a 23 percent increased risk of overweight or obesity.
Read about how consistent bedtimes could lower a child's risk of obesity.
The more time children spend watching screens – particularly in the evening – the less sleep they get. The AAP warns against keeping screens in kids' bedrooms, noting that even small screens like phones and tablets have been linked to poor sleep quality. The light emitted by screens may delay melatonin release and make it harder to fall asleep. (This is true for adults, too, but children are twice as sensitive to the light exposure.) Content matters, too: Researchers found that preschoolers exposed to violent media had more nighttime sleep problems.
The habit of too much screen time can be hard to break. One study found that the more time 4-year-olds spent watching TV, the more difficulty they had taking breaks from screens when they were 6. As kids get older, many parents worry about dependent and addictive tendencies.
According to a study of over 40,000 children ages two to 17, children who spend seven hours or more a day on their screens are more than twice as likely than children who use screens for an hour a day to suffer from depression or anxiety. The study also found that high users of media show less curiosity, self-control, and emotional stability.
Screen time isn't all bad. But your child should still have plenty of time for other, healthful activities, such as active play, reading, and interacting with others.
How can I set manageable screen time rules for my family?
Little to no screen time may sound like a great goal, but reality tends to get in the way of a parent's best intentions. Maybe you started out by banning TV, but then your preschooler found your iPad and is now tapping and swiping like a pro. Or maybe the rules you carefully established with your first child got bent – or tossed entirely – by the time your second child came on the scene.
Screen time almost inevitably increases as kids get older. Figuring out what's best for you, your child, and your family feels like picking through a media minefield, says Lisa Guernsey, coauthor of Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens. Technology is moving fast, and with so many new products designed for and marketed to young kids, parents often end up feeling guilty or overwhelmed.
The problem for many well-meaning parents is that rules limiting or prohibiting screen time can be rigid and hard to enforce. What to do? Guernsey suggests using the "three C's" to help you decide when screen time is okay:
- Content: What is my child watching or playing? Can they understand what they're doing or potentially learn from it?
- Context: What has my child's day been like so far? Have we talked and interacted a lot, or have they been plugged in for hours?
- Child: How does your child respond to screen media? When screen time is over, are they bursting with new ideas and questions they want to explore? Or do they become irritable, anxious, or withdrawn? Why is your child drawn to particular media, and what are they getting out of it?
"Thinking about the three C's in the moment, when you're trying to decide whether to let your child play with a tablet or watch a show, helps you make better, more mindful choices," says Guernsey.
To identify your priorities and develop strategies that might work for your family, try using the AAP's online tool for coming up with a family media plan. You can personalize it according to your children's ages, your values, and your family's routines.
What qualifies as "educational" screen time?
High-quality media can help children develop important skills, and there are some great games and apps on the market that support reading, math, and other skills. "We have some really nice evidence that kids are able to learn from a video or game that's been well designed," says Guernsey. The tricky part, however, is sorting the good stuff from the bad.
There are no standards that app developers need to meet in order to market their products as educational, and most are made without following a curriculum or using input from experts in education or child development. You can try to assess what's appropriate for your child's age and stage, but it's hard to judge what might contribute to real learning.
Here are some tips for evaluating a program or app for your child:
- Preview before playing or watching. Preview videos and apps before introducing them to your child, and choose ones that encourage your child to actively participate. Look for interactive elements that support learning and strategic thinking. Look for choices that teach good values. Watch and play side-by-side with your child to make the most of the experience.
- Reinforce in real time. To make the most of high-quality learning games, pay attention to what your child is doing, and reinforce the lessons when screen time is over. For example, if your child plays with an app that focuses on identifying patterns, encourage them to find patterns around your home, or create a simple pattern with blocks or other toys. If they watch a video teaching letter recognition, help them recognize letters in books and on signs.
- Look for well-crafted stories and games. Avoid apps that require your child to mindlessly swipe the screen or feature distracting graphics. Pay particular attention to "hot spots," which are random opportunities to click on things that aren't related to the story or game. (Free games and apps raise a red flag because your child may end up with annoying and sometimes inappropriate banner ads.)
- Check reviews. Common Sense Media evaluates games and apps for age-appropriateness and educational value, and you can check out our tips for choosing computer games as well as the best TV shows for children and most engaging apps.
Even if you load your child's tablet with what you believe are age-appropriate apps, games, and e-books, the reality is that devices can be distracting. Kids are quick to jump from one game to another or just mindlessly click around. And screens entice kids away from time spent with books, toys, sports and outdoor play, arts, and each other's company.
Are e-books just as good as print books?
E-books have their limitations. Researchers have found that interactive storybooks can be distracting for both parents and children, making reading together a less enjoyable and enriching experience. Children and parents ask fewer questions, and kids have trouble following along when reading an e-book together.
Your child will get the most out of any reading experience if you sit with them and talk about what's happening. ("What might happen next? Remember when you tried strawberry ice cream too?") Digital books often involve lots of fun buttons, lights, and noises, and it's easy to get distracted by the device rather than focusing on the story.
The lesson here is there's nothing wrong with the occasional e-book, but keep reading traditional books to your child. And when you do turn to tablets or apps for reading:
- Treat the stories the same way you would a story in a regular book: Ask questions, make observations, and get your child involved.
- Choose e-books that aren't too distracting (don't have too many embellishments, such as noises or flashing lights)
When are kids getting their own cell phones and tablets?
A BabyCenter survey found that phones and tablets are commonplace among the little-kid set: About 85 percent of parents allow their children ages 2 to 8 to use their phones, and nearly half of kids that age have their own tablet. Some start with "kiddie" versions, like the LeapPad, but more jump straight to the real thing, such as the iPad.
Common Sense Media reports that nearly half of 2- to 4-year-olds and more than two-thirds of 5- to 8-year-olds have their own tablet or smartphone.
Parents say that they buy children phones for safety and convenience – they want to be able to reach them and know where they are. But predictably, kids have different interests. Their favorite activities are playing games and watching videos.
Some parents hold off on devices, some ease in by letting a child play with an old phone, and others aren't really concerned if Grandma wants to give everyone a tablet for Christmas. No matter what approach you take, be aware of what your child is up to, and find ways to moderate how and when devices are used.
How can I support my child's interest in technology?
Of course, we want our children to become tech-literate as they grow up. We also want to nurture and encourage kids who might grow up to be the next great tech innovator. But it's not just a matter of exposing kids to technology, notes Guernsey, it's about teaching them to think critically about it.
Children, with their parents' and teachers' guidance, "should ideally be developing an understanding of how tech is used to communicate, exchange ideas, and build knowledge," says Guernsey. Toward that end, you can reinforce the concept of technology as a tool – when looking at a map, paying bills online, or attending a video conference for work – and set a thoughtful example. "Take the time to explain what you're doing around tech yourself," Guernsey says.
Ask your child's school how they're introducing kids to technology. If your kid shows interest in where technology comes from, tell them some people have the awesome job of developing new programs and apps, which is something they can learn how to do, too.
By the way, there's no need to feel pressured to let your child use tech early. Your child won't fall behind their peers – kids figure out how to use phones and tablets very quickly. And there's no need to let them have their own device. You'll have an easier time controlling the use of an item that you hold the keys to, so to speak, rather than one your child "owns."
Healthy tips for managing your kids' screen time
Set family guidelines
- Make a family agreement. Talk about when and how each member of your family may use – or not use – screens, discuss digital safety and citizenship, and post your family's guidelines where everyone can see them. (For a personalized plan, try the AAP's free family media plan tool.) Before giving your child their own phone or tablet, agree on the rules, put them in writing, and have both of you sign the document.
- Set clear limits. Be specific about when and where screens are allowed. Some parents reserve the 30 minutes before dinner – when you're trying to get a meal on the table – for screen time, or limit screen use to weekends. It's a good idea to avoid screen use for an hour before bedtime. You can also set aside some screen-free zones, such as bedrooms and the table during meals. Find a system that feels fair and doable so everyone in the family can respect the rules.
- Give your kids a heads up. It's hard for kids – especially toddlers and preschoolers – to transition from one activity to another, so getting them to turn off their screens when they're in the midst of viewing can be a challenge. Give them ample warning.
- Create clear consequences. Your child defied a rule on media use? Be sure they know the consequences ahead of time. Many parents take away devices as a consequence.
- Share the rules. Let other caregivers (babysitters and grandparents, for example) know what your media rules are so they can be consistent.
- Monitor your own screen use. Kids learn by example, so if you're responding to every ping and trill of your own device, you have far less authority to limit your child's screen time. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or distractedly answering work emails while you wait in line or have a snack, engage your child: Play tic-tac-toe, try a round of "I Spy," or just talk.
- Talk to your child. Make screen time a shared activity as much as possible. Pay attention to what your child is watching and playing, and ask questions. Have a family movie or game night and talk about what you saw together. When your child uses a device without you, talk about what they watched or played. When your child starts getting interested in social media, talk about safety, privacy, and digital citizenship.
- Be selective. For young children, avoid programs with a lot of distracting content and fast-paced programs (they don't understand them as well). For all ages, avoid violent content.
- Set up parental controls. Many devices allow you to limit what, when, or how much they can be used. You may set separate limits on gaming versus reading time, for example. Or you may set an overall hour/minute limit on screen time for the day.
- Take charge of devices. Know what apps your child is using. Test apps before your child plays with them. Use the apps together and talk about them. As your child gets older, make sure you own the accounts and passwords so you can control what's being downloaded.
Think beyond screen time
- Offer fun alternatives. If your child is clamoring for more screen time, have fun activities on hand so you're less likely to cave.
- Turn off devices and the television when they're not being used. Background media can interfere with interaction with your child.
- Leave the ipad at home when you're heading to the playground or a playdate or other activity where it won't add to the experience.
- Make sure your child gets plenty of physical activity each day.
- Make sure your child gets adequate sleep for their age.
Screen time is a pretty universal concern these days, so it might help chat with other parents about how their families deal with it. Also check out our collection of tips from parents on limiting screen time at home.
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