How Much Screen Time Is Too Much for Kids?

Media is practically unavoidable. But there are ways parents can curb kids' tech use.

young girl playing with smart phone

Medically reviewed in August 2022

Updated on August 15, 2022

From classroom computers to bedroom televisions to the smartphones that seem stuck to their hands, screens have invaded every part of kids’ lives. And excessive time spent staring can be bad for their development, no matter their age.

“Too much screen time can lead to more behavioral problems, attention problems, a sedentary lifestyle, weight gain, and childhood obesity,” says Elliot Freed, DO, a family medicine doctor in Pembroke, Virginia. For older kids, untold hours spent glued to a display is connected to mental health issues, as well.

These issues may have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many school-aged children were locked down and learning online, for a time unable to go to school or participate in activities. A report posted online in September 2020 on PsyArXiv (Psychology Archive) found that more than half of children ages 6 to 12 had increased their screen time by 50 percent at the start of the pandemic. In a separate ParentsTogether survey from April 2020, almost half of parents surveyed said their children were online more than six hours a day, up from 8 percent before the pandemic. Another one-quarter of kids spent more than eight hours a day on a screen. 

Screen time has also surged among the youngest children over the years. Between 1997 and 2014, daily screen time more than doubled among those younger than 2 years, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in February 2019. In 1997, daily screen time for toddlers averaged around 1.32 hours and included TV and video viewing, video games, and time spent on home computers. By 2014, however, young children spent an average of three hours per day in front of screens as more devices—including smartphones, tablets, and e-readers—became available. During the pandemic, even toddlers’ screen time increased by about 30 minutes daily, according to a February 2022 study in Scientific Reports

As a result, many experts are also concerned about the effects of devices on kids’ brain development. Another study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2019 found that increased unsupervised screen time was associated with less white matter in the brains of 3- to 5-year-olds. White matter plays a crucial role in language, literacy, and cognitive abilities.

So, in a world where screens are inescapable—and often a necessary part of life—how can parents and guardians find a happy medium? How can we balance the reasonable, potentially beneficial use of devices in a school setting with recreational use like social media and TV?

Screen time for younger children
Experts believe television holds no benefit for babies and toddlers. For one thing, since children ages 2 and younger don't understand what's happening on TV, they don’t learn anything, even from programs meant to be educational. For another, interaction with real-live people and objects is crucial to their development; excessive TV exposure can detract from this in-person contact and may even cause delays in language and social-emotional development. Babies’ and toddlers’ sleep could suffer, as well. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children should not be exposed to any screen media until between 18 and 24 months of age. One exception is video chatting, where they can interact with family members. Beginning at age 2, the smallest kids can be slowly introduced to high-quality shows if a parent or guardian is around to guide them.

Once a child hits preschool—between the ages of 2 and 5—the AAP advises no more than one hour of media per day. The organization stresses that less is even better. Since content matters, the focus should be on high-quality programs—think Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Co-viewing with your child is one way to regulate how long they watch and help them understand what's happening onscreen. Educational apps and games are often introduced at this age, as well. Since their efficacy is still being studied, parents should monitor their children's usage.

Screen time for older children
As kids get older, screen use becomes more complicated. Many need to use computers for school, and the introduction of smartphones opens up a world of social interaction.

Perhaps because of this, the AAP does not set a specific limit on how much children ages 6 and up should interact with media. They do, however, say that parents should place limits to ensure kids are not choosing media at the expense of their health. Kids should be sleeping well and getting enough physical activity, and too much time with devices can lead to deficiencies in both areas. While there’s plenty of research suggesting that too much time in front of a screen can increase a child's risk of obesity, the odds are even higher if they have a TV in their own bedroom.

Excess screen use may contribute to mental health issues, as well. One 2021 study in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, for example, found that more than an hour of screen time daily negatively affected the life satisfaction of adolescents and teens.

How to manage your child's screen time
The best solution? “Everything in moderation,” says Dr. Freed. Parents have the ability and responsibility to influence how and when their children interact with media. Here’s how:

Create media-free zones. Face-to-face interactions with family members and friends are essential for your child’s development. So, designate times and areas of your house that will remain media-free, such as the dinner table, the study area, and bedrooms. You can either verbally agree on these hours and places, or they can be written down in what the AAP calls a “family media plan.” Sites like HealthyChildren.org can help you create these documents and specify restricted and unrestricted media use within your home.

Limit tech use before bed. Using a phone before bed can stimulate children and cause insomnia or worsen sleep quality. Try cutting off screen time 30 to 60 minutes prior to bedtime. If children are having trouble falling asleep, you might shut things down even earlier.

Limit extra screen time. Even though remote learning ebbed over the course of the pandemic, screens have continued to be an integral part of classrooms, as students increasingly take notes on computers, and many learning programs and books are only available online. If your high schooler is already spending two to three hours in front of a screen for class or to complete their homework, you may want to cut down on anything beyond that. “Limit extra screen time for the older children who might, out of necessity, need increased screen time,” says Freed.

Monitor media use. What your child watches matters, especially when they're younger. Co-viewing can help, since you can explain what they see. Common Sense Media is a good resource for parents looking for high-quality programming, or reviews of the shows your kids are already watching.

Encourage exercise. Limiting screen time is important, but exercise is also essential. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ physical activity guidelines recommend that children older than 6 years of age participate in moderate activity for at least 60 minutes each day, and the activity should be vigorous at least three days a week. Kids and teenagers between ages 6 and 17 should also incorporate muscle-building and bone-strengthening activities at least three days per week.

Moderate exercise includes brisk walking, hiking, and sports like baseball, swimming, and dancing, while vigorous activity comprises activities like jumping rope, biking, and games like soccer, basketball, or flag football.

Young children—infants, toddlers, or preschoolers—should be allowed unlimited active playtime, as long as they are in a safe environment. Following these recommendations could help reduce your child’s risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and many more short- and long-term health conditions.

Talk about touchy subjects. Whatever your kids' ages, as a parent, you can make sure they're using media safely, and not engaging in online bullying or interacting with sexually explicit material. Discuss the dangers that online harassment can pose to your child and to other people.

As an adult, it’s ultimately up to you to model good tech behavior. Limiting your own screen time and using media wisely may be the most effective tools you have for teaching your child good screen habits.

Article sources open article sources

Barnett T, et al. Sedentary Behaviors in Today’s Youth: Approaches to the Prevention and Management of Childhood Obesity: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2018;138:e142–e159.
Hartshorne JK, et al. “Screen Time as an Index of Family Distress.” PsyArXiv, 17 Sept. 2020. Web.
Bergmann C, Dimitrova N, et al. Young children’s screen time during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 12 countries. Scientific Reports. 12;2015 (2022).
Hutton J, Dudley J, et al. Associations Between Screen-Based Media Use and Brain White Matter Integrity in Preschool-Aged Children. JAMA Pediatrics. 2020;174(1):e193869.
Stephanie Pappas. What do we really know about kid and screens? American Psychological Association. Page last updated June 30, 2022.
World Health Organization. To grow up healthy, children need to sit less and play more. Page last revised April 24, 2019.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Television Watching and “Sit Time.” Page accessed July 19, 2022.
Khan A, Lee EYL, et al. Dose-dependent and joint associations between screen time, physical activity, and mental wellbeing in adolescents: an international observational study. The Lancet. 729-738:5. 2021. 
Chen W, Adler JL. Assessment of Screen Exposure in Young Children, 1997 to 2014. JAMA Pediatrics. 2019;173(4):391–393.
Hill D, Ameenuddin N, et al. Media and Young Minds. Pediatrics. (2016) 138 (5): e20162591.
HealthyChildren.org. Family Media Plan. Accessed August 15, 2022.
Cheung CHM, Bedford R, et al. Daily touchscreen use in infants and toddlers is associated with reduced sleep and delayed sleep onset. Scientific Reports. April 13, 2017. 7; 46104.
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