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How Much Screen Time Is Too Much for Kids?

How Much Screen Time Is Too Much for Kids?

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

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 from LewisGale Hospital Montgomery in Pembroke, Virginia. For older kids, untold hours spent glued to a display is connected to mental health issues, as well.

Excessive screen time on electronic devices is associated with increased sedentary behavior and may interfere with kids’ sleep and eating habits—setting them on the path toward obesity, according to a scientific statement released in August 2018 by the American Heart Association (AHA). The AHA estimates that children age 8 to 18 spend a startling 7 hours or more in front of screens each day. 

Screen time among even younger children has also surged over the past two decades. 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 were spending an average of three hours per day in front of screens as more devices—including smartphones, tablets and e-readers—became available.

Many experts are also concerned about the effects of devices on kids’ brain development. In fact, higher levels of unsupervised screen time (more than one hour per day) was associated with decreased growth of white matter in the brain, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in November 2019 that looked at 3- to 5-year-old children. 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 day-to-day life—how can parents and guardians find a happy medium? How can they balance the reasonable, potentially beneficial use of devices in a school setting with recreational use like social media and TV?

Here are some guidelines, plus tips on how to effectively manage your child’s screen time use.

Screen time for younger children
Experts believe screens don't have many benefits for babies and toddlers. For one thing, interaction with real-live people and objects is crucial to the development of this age group. Excessive screen exposure may detract from that and even cause delays, as well as sleep interruptions. What's more, babies simply don't understand what's happening onscreen.

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

Once your child hits preschool—between the ages of 2 and 5—the AAP advises no more than one hour of media per day. Since what they see 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 to 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.

In April 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) released guidelines advising that children younger than five years shouldn’t spend more than one hour watching screens per day, stressing that less is even better. The WHO recommends that those younger than 1 year should avoid screens altogether.

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 age 6 and above 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.

Too much screen use may contribute to mental health issues, as well. A study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking in July 2015 showed that children who used devices to check social media for longer than two hours a day had increased psychological problems and increased levels of suicidal thoughts.

How to manage your child's screen time
The best solution? “Everything in moderation,” says 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: Freed believes using a phone before bed can stimulate children and cause insomnia or worsened sleep quality in general. He suggests cutting off screen time 30 to 60 minutes prior to bedtime.

Limit extra screen time: Screens have become an integral part of classrooms, as many teachers encourage students to take notes on computers, and many programs or books are only available online. If your high schooler is already spending two to three hours on 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 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 games like baseball, softball and catch, 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. In addition to monitoring how your child interacts with media, limiting your own screen time—while using media wisely—may be the most effective thing you can do.

Medically reviewed in April 2019. Updated in November 2019.

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