What Is Too Much Screen Time for Kids?

An expert shares when it’s time to limit your kids’ tablet or TV time
kids, children, screen time, too much screen time

When you were a kid, your parents may have plopped you in front of the TV while they did chores. Kids today, however, have even more options for screen time — including tablets, smartphones and laptops.

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However, more options for screen time doesn’t mean kids should opt for more screen time. Pediatrician Noah Schwartz, MD, says The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “minimal to no screen time in children under the age of 18 months. For kids between 18 and 24 months, it should also be kept to a minimum.” Between ages 2 and 5, it’s less than an hour a day, he adds. “Granted, during the pandemic or when a child is home sick, there is more room to be lenient, but we still need to be mindful of how much content they are consuming.” 

“Younger kids need back and forth interaction,” Dr. Schwartz says. “Little kids under the age of two really don’t get a lot of benefit from screen time or just watching TV. At that stage in their life, from a developmental standpoint, it’s all about watching their environment. They’re learning and interacting with people around them. They’re looking for that responsive, emotional connection, and trying to understand social cues. That’s not really there when you’re watching a TV show or playing a video game.”

If your kids are having screen time, it should be age appropriate. Screen time should be something that you do with them — not something they do by themselves.

“Be as involved as you can be when you’re watching with them,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Explain to them what you’re watching. Talk about it together. As your younger kids get closer to adolescence, it’s all about preemptively setting boundaries and setting limits so that screen time isn’t the thing that they do all day and every day. As your children get older, pick a show everyone in the family can watch together. Make it a bonding experience!”

What’s considered ‘screen time’?

You might be surprised at how many things fall under the category of screen time. “Anything with a screen is screen time,” says Dr. Schwartz. “That includes your TV, phone, tablet, the computer. There’s no specific thing that is — or isn’t — included in screen time. It’s describing you or a child looking at screens.”

Not all kinds of screen time are created equally, however. Actively watching a movie is different from passively having the TV on in the background while doing other things.

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“Video chatting, meetings and interacting with people via screens is very different than sitting and watching something,” Dr. Schwartz explains. “Talking to grandparents on FaceTime or having a meeting or school on Zoom is a much more engaging and positive experience versus watching TV, playing video games or using an app on your phone.”

Symptoms of too much screen time

It can be difficult to tell when your kid is having too much screen time. “There’s not one specific symptom that would stick out for each child,” says Dr. Schwartz. “And not every kid that watches a lot of screen time has specific symptoms.”

Being less physically active

But chances are good that kids glued to screens will be more sedentary. “They won’t be moving as much, so they will get less physical activity and exercise,” notes Dr. Schwartz. “If you’re not active as much, and not going outside and getting enough sunlight, this also won’t make them feel good and could affect their nutritional health.”

Disrupted sleep

Sleep is another big area affected by an abundance of screen time. “Sleep is so important to growing children, but screens are constant stimulation, especially if used close to bed,” says Dr. Schwartz. “There’s a lot of ongoing research about the negative effects screens and lights can have on our quality of sleep.” To make it less of an issue, Dr. Schwartz recommends screens, especially TVs, should not be allowed in the bedroom.

Headaches

Dr. Schwartz says he has seen children come into his office who say they have headaches or other physical complaints. “When we talk to them, it’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re spending 50% of your day on a screen, whether it’s your phone or TV or computer. That might be part of the problem.’”

Eye strain

Giving your eyes a rest is also important. “That strain of staring at something, whether you’re too close to it or not, certainly won’t make you feel good,” says Dr. Schwartz.

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Emotional impact

In some cases, screen time can also really affect kids emotionally. For example, studies have connected higher rates of screen time to decreased mood in teenagers. “Excessive screen time can have other effects on kids,” cautions Dr. Schwartz. “Studies have shown it can decrease cognitive function and attention spans, and have an impact on energy levels. Additionally, studies have shown that screen time can affect children’s academics.”

Lack of teaching communication cues

Younger children also don’t have the ability to communicate well and tell you what they do and don’t want. Screen time doesn’t help cultivate that. “Screen time doesn’t teach them those cues of how to communicate,” says Dr. Schwartz. “They’re just watching something. They’re not watching, ‘How does my parent react when I do this? What does my caregiver do when this happens?’ That affects their emotional intelligence and how they learn to adapt in a changing world.”

How to cut down on screen time

Cutting down on screen time starts with realizing there is a problem, Dr. Schwartz says. “Take a step back and say, ‘OK, let me think about how many hours a day my child watches TV.’ And if you realize, ‘Wow, that’s a lot,’ that’s a first step.”

  1. Lead by example.
    Leading by example is a good start. In other words, that means putting down your phone and switching off the TV. “If you’re at the dinner table and you’re scrolling through your phone, they’re watching you,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Kids are sponges. They’re absorbing their environment. They follow what they see.”
  2. Have designated times and places with no screen time.
    Having designated times and places with no screen time is also helpful. For example, maybe you make dinner time off-limits for phones. Or perhaps you might ban video games after school until homework is done. “I would also definitely recommend no screen time at least an hour before bed, for all the reasons we said before,” says Dr. Schwartz. “That’s in addition to having no-screen zones and sticking to the limits.”
  3. Co-watch as much as possible.
    The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends co-watching as much as possible. Being a part of your child’s screen time allows you to teach them about what they’re watching. “Especially when you have little kids around the age of two, it’s about being involved,” says Dr. Schwartz. “You’re talking to them, explaining things to them and trying to watch certain shows with them. But if you have tweens or teenagers, watching as a family and making it more of a family-time thing is still a great strategy.”
  4. Set boundaries.
    Of course, as any parent knows, trying to set boundaries around anything involving your kids won’t always be smooth sailing. Dr. Schwartz acknowledges that there will be some bumps along the way. “Kids will test you,” he says. “You’re going to have days where they’ll break the rules, and you’ll have to do something. If it means taking away their phones and physically hiding them, so be it. When it comes to sleep and academics and making sure your kids are getting enough exercise and getting outside, it’s important.”
  5. Be consistent.
    Being consistent and firm is crucial, he adds. “If you’re going to set a boundary, you better hold that boundary pretty firmly. Consistency is the only thing you can do. Just stick to it.”

At the end of the day, determining the ideal amount of screen time is also about balance. For example, at the start of the pandemic, when everything was closed, kids and adults alike felt less lonely when they could video chat with friends and family.

“Screen time can be very harmful — but it can be also very beneficial,” says Dr. Schwartz. “For kids to have had those interactions online, to look at and see their friends and talk to people, was clearly beneficial. It was better than nothing. It’s really all about finding a balance and working with each kid to make sure we address their needs specifically.”

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