Screen Time Guidelines for Kids

Natalie Grant (with child sleeping)
Written by Natalie Grant Updated on September 13th, 2022

It can be tough for parents to avoid the prevalence of screened toys and devices these days. When all the other kids on the playground are toting a cell phone, tablet, or handheld game console, setting limitations takes consistency and gusto and requires providing alternatives that will keep your kids engaged.

It can be easy to over-rely on digital entertainment in our pockets to keep down time interesting, but scientific studies have proven that excessive screen time can be detrimental to kids. That said, screens used wisely and in moderation don’t pose any real danger, and apps and games that are all about learning, skill development, and exercise can actually play a positive role in our kids’ lives when utilized properly.

If you’re wondering what amount of screen time is appropriate by age, how to regulate your child’s screen time, and are in search of a system that works for both parents and kids, you’re not alone. Take a look at our list of pros and cons and some suggestions for balancing screen time and “real life” to begin establishing a system that works for your household.

So, What Are the Actual Screen Time Guidelines for Kids?

If you’re looking for hard and fast numbers on what amount of screen time is appropriate for your child by age, the American Association of Pediatrics has set forth sensible recommendations that most parents find reasonable.

According to their guidance, before your child reaches 18 months of age, screen-based entertainment shouldn’t be used. Using tablets and television to entertain your baby can be overstimulating, and which can disrupt their all-important sleeping pattern. Bonding time and human contact are also priorities for babies, who should be spending the majority of their awake time playing and interacting with other people rather than screens. Looking at a screen for the short duration needed to participate in a video call with relatives, however, is just fine.

No official guideline is set forth for children between 18 months and two years, though parents can reasonably estimate that intermittent, education-focused screen time in short increments throughout the day totaling no more than half an hour won’t be detrimental to their toddler.

Once children reach age two, the AAP advises that up to an hour of screen time a day is acceptable; parents should note that this doesn’t just mean tablets and games, it covers regular television watching habits as well. This rule holds fast until age five.

Beyond age five, again, no advisement on screen time has officially been offered. However, with awareness of the potential detriments of excessive screen time kept close to mind, it’s wise to limit daily recreational screen time of school-aged kids to two hours a day, and to keep screen time productive and safe by following detailed rules set forth by parents.

Screen time statistics

While it can be tough to track exact statistics on screen time use, these tidbits illuminate the prevalence of screened devices and the role they play in the lives of our children and their peers.

  • According to Healthy Kids Canada, Canadian children between the ages of three and five engaged in an average of two hours of screen time daily in 2014, twice the amount recommended by the AAP
  • By age eight, 16% of American children have a smartphone and accompanying data plan; by age 10 – 12, this figure jumps to 45%, and many more children beyond these numbers rely on devices shared in the family home

How important is intervening on screen time use?

We know through scientific research that the excessive use of screened devices can be habit-forming. Creating healthy habits happens far more easily when children are small, and are susceptible to developing lifelong patterns based on the routines to which they are exposed. By minimizing kids’ access to screens and prioritizing physical activity — the WHO recommends a total of 180 minutes a day spent in motion, with no more than an hour ever spent idle/seated — they’re likely to develop healthy habits centered around exercise and the outdoors rather than a sedentary, screen-centric lifestyle.

Screen time can’t be all bad, right?

Although there are absolutely detriments to excessive screen time, there are also benefits to be reaped from choosing the right apps and games and using them wisely. Wondering how screen time can play a positive role in our kids’ lives?

  • When parents choose apps and games that focus on language arts, counting, simple math, and even second language learning, kids are using their screen time to meet developmental goals and learn new skills
  • Not all apps and games are sedentary; some, like dance-based games and fitness games that use motion centers, encourages players to get up and move their whole body for a cardiovascular boost that takes the sitting out of screen time
  • Simply mastering the user interface of a cell phone, tablet, or computer imparts basic operator knowledge that will give them an edge over peers who are inexperienced with these everyday devices

What are the real detriments of excessive screen time?

If you’re wondering if that odd occasional extra hour of TV is doing serious harm to your kiddo, you can rest assured that the answer is probably no. However, establishing a pattern in which screen time rules can regularly be broken without consequence or in which screen time goes unrestricted can create and worsen a number of issues for kids, and some of them aren’t so obvious. Excessive access to screen time can negatively impact kids in the following ways:

  1. The crux of many developmentally beneficial childhood experiences is time spent in independent explorative play, and using screened toys simply can’t replicate the personal development, critical thinking, and imagination that those experiences trigger
  2. Time spent playing on a screen, even with others, is rarely to never a full social experience; replacing face time spent on friends and family with games leads to diminished social skills and emotional development
  3. If they’re vulnerable to mental illness, excessive time spent on sedentary behavior and in isolation while playing games can trigger or worsen depression.
  4. While not all fit this description, most apps and games are inherently sedentary, and it’s really best for kids to spend their time at physical play
  5. Unless they’re using their tablet as an eBook, time with screens cuts into recreational time that could be spent on reading and learning
  6. Human beings aren’t used to the excessive use of screened devices, and they can cause issues with blinking and trigger dry eyes; screens used too closely or with brightness turned up too high can also trigger painful eye strain
  7. Although quick levels on video games offer kids a satisfying adrenaline burst, they also wire kids to desire and expect instant gratification and not hold out for things that require effort; this same issue can negatively impact attention span in class or when doing homework
  8. Overstimulation caused by bright lights and motion in games can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep, a fact that is true for both kids and grown-ups; the more closely to bedtime screens are used, the worse this problem becomes

Screen time reduction tips

Cutting down on screen time can be a battle, especially in a society which encourages adults never to stray too far from their own devices. Look to the following tips to try to create structure around screen time and prepare kids for lifelong good habits.

  • Set limits on screen time and content, and enforce them: Being firm about enforcing screen time limits matters, but so does making sure the apps and games they’re accessing are actually productive, positive, and learning-centric in order to make sure the time is spend productively; this is especially important when kids are young. It can be easy for parents to get distracted or be lax, but it’s important to fight through any bickering and whining in order to establish a respected routine.
  • Encourage active games, and don’t be afraid to participate: There are plenty of games on the market which encourage kids to get up and physically move and/or dance, and they can be a very fun way to bond with siblings and parents. Don’t be afraid to get involved, even if you look silly — it can be a great family time spent unwinding and bonding while also squeezing in some all-important physical activity.
  • Reserve screens for appropriate times and places: When you’re seated at the dinner table, having a conversation, or working on a project, phones, tablets, and computers should be put away and reserved for use at an appropriate time. This helps both kids and adults to focus on people and conversations, avoid mindless eating, and avoid developing an association between device use and mindless eating. Keeping screened device use to the family room or living room also discourages staying up after bedtime and helps parents keep tabs on use.
  • Set a good example: No kid likes to hear “do as I say, not as I do”, and it’s not tough to see why. Put down your phone when you’re speaking to your child, and try not to be glued to your devices in front of them if you can help it. If you can, answer work emails and calls in another room to discourage the perception that mom or dad is “always” on their phone or computer.
  • Be flexible when they’re older: As they reach their mid and late teen years, it’s okay to be a bit more flexible about the screen time you allow your kids. Talking about it in a democratic fashion can help establish a time increase that works for everyone. Extra time on the weekends is a great start, though completely unrestricted access still isn’t wise.

Final thoughts: Best practices for screen time

Like most of the resources available to our kids, technology and screened devices can play a positive role when they’re used intelligently and in moderation. These best practices can also help negotiating and using screen time to be more productive and go more smoothly for parents and kids alike.

  • During and after viewing, keep kids engaged by asking questions about what they observed and what they thought to encourage them to use recollection and critical thinking skills
  • Though staying up-to-date on news and world events is important, more so for older children and teens, be selective about the news media you share with them and be willing and able to talk to and reassure them about fears they may have based on things they see or hear on the news
  • Never use screen time as a reward, pacification, or bribe, as it encourages kids to act out in demand until you give in. Instead, treat it as a privilege which can be restricted if it is not respected.
Natalie Grant (with child sleeping)
Written by Natalie Grant Updated on September 13th, 2022