Screen Time: How Much Is Too Much?

Parents know instinctively that young children need to run and play. They need to create their own universes and go outside to exercise their muscles. They need unstructured time to make up games and act out their stories.

Instead, many children are choosing to stay indoors and have “screen time.” Those screen time minutes are more precious to them than dessert. And now with the pandemic, kids are also sitting in front of screens for long hours to receive their education. Should parents be worried?

Well, yes. Early childhood experts do worry that today’s kids are sitting passively in front of screens for far too many minutes each day. They remind us that:

  • When children don’t exercise, they become obese.
  • Many children display sleep disturbances due to overuse of screens.
  • Excessive screen use can be a catalyst for behavior problems such as aggression and impatience.
  • The more hours spent in passive play, the less spent in healthy, active play.
  • Some studies link screen time with inability to focus attention in other learning situations.
  • Excessive screen use in toddlers has been linked with delayed speech.
  • Some studies suggest that excessive screen time delays academic performance overall.
  • In older children, excessive screen time is linked to depression and suicide.

Realistic Expectations

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that all screens be turned off at least thirty minutes before bedtime and that televisions, computers and other screens not be allowed in children’s bedrooms.

So how much screen time is right for your children? The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Plan is one way to determine how many minutes of screen time are healthy for your family. Take a bit of time to go through their evaluation as a means of determining screen time goals for the whole family.

Experts Agree

General guidelines for screen use in young children are:

  • For children younger than eighteen months, no screen time at all. Babies and toddlers are much better able to learn and grow with adequate physical play time, plenty of sleep and quiet read-aloud times with adults.
  • For eighteen to twenty-four month-olds, screen time should be limited to occasional viewing of quality materials with adults.
  • For two to five year-olds, one hour of high-quality educational screen time is suggested.
  • For school-aged children, the amount of screen time increases to several hours per day, provided the content is good.

Virtually no one believes it’s a good idea for children to spend long hours playing video games or using screens for entertainment, which is why many families realize their children are too attached to their screens and spend more time on them than is healthy.

Establishing Family Rules

It’s very important that your family set clear, enforceable rules for screen use. You’ll want to preview games, apps, and websites your children want to use. There are many questionable and even dangerous sites available that are unsuitable for children. Use parental controls as necessary.

  • Prioritize unplugged, unstructured play time daily.
  • Create screen-free family times such as meal times or family game nights.
  • Enforce daily limits and curfews related to screens such as no screen time just before bed.
  • Manage screen time used for homework or other school-related sessions.
  • Charge devices outside of bedrooms.
  • Teach online safety rules such as maintaining privacy.

One way you’ll recognize overuse of screens is your child’s inability to manage without those minutes. If it has become the most important thing in their life, it’s time to re-evaluate your family screen time plan.

Replace screen time with more active, in-person activities: board games, playing music or singing, cooking or gardening, weekend hikes or bike rides. Brainstorm with your kids the things they’d like to do and incorporate them into your weekly schedules. 

Screens are here to stay and they offer quality educational and entertainment value, but they can’t be allowed to dominate children’s lives. Do an honest survey of your family’s screen time and be proactive in making a reasonable screen time plan that fits your family’s needs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Plan

Erin Schoen Marsh
Erin Schoen Marsh
Erin is a writer/editor, yoga teacher, and mama to two little ones.

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