For many parents, digital devices such as phones, tablets, televisions and game consoles, saved their kids from boredom and isolation during the height of the pandemic. However, as children’s options for in-person play and learning were reduced or eliminated, screen time limits were thrown out the window.
Now that many pandemic restrictions have been lifted, school is in person, and warm weather is returning, parents are struggling with how and when to tear their kids away from their screens. Unfortunately, for many parents, now that the genie has been let out of the bottle, so to speak, many are finding it impossible to stick him back in – or re-establish healthy screen time parameters. In this digital age, how much screen time is too much?
The Skinny on Kids Screen Time
What the experts say
While the American Academy of Pediatrics has published screen use guidelines, every family should figure out what works for their lifestyle and children. However, these guidelines can serve as a great starting point.
- Children under 18 months old: No screen time other than video chatting
- Children 18 to 24 months old: Only high-quality educational programming watched or played together with a parent
- Children 2 to 5 years old: Limit screen time to one hour a day of high-quality programs (i.e., “Sesame Street” or “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”)
- Children 6 and up, the AAP recommends parents develop “personalized media use plans for their children,” taking into account each child’s age, health, personality, and developmental stage
Regardless of how often your children use their screens, it’s important to strive to maintain a healthy balance of screens, exercise, social interaction, eating and sleeping. Unfortunately, that balance is not easy to accomplish.
All screen time is not created equal
Children, and adults, use their screens for different reasons. Many students spend part of their day at school using their computers to take tests, use educational apps and take notes. That type of screen use is necessary and beneficial. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that provides ratings and recommendations for movies, TV, games, podcasts and apps, breaks up screen use outside of school into four categories:
- Passive: mindlessly watching content or scrolling through social media posts
- Interactive: playing games, educational or otherwise
- Communication: chat, posting on social media, texting
- Content creation: making videos, music, coding
In other words, not all screen time is bad or the same. The first step to establishing parameters for your children’s screen use is to learn how they are using their devices. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to spend some time watching or playing with them.
If you find that they’re creating music or videos, writing a short story, doing a yoga class via Zoom, playing educational games or learning another language, you may be less concerned about the time they spend on their device. If they’re binge-watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix, that’s another story.
Why establishing guidelines is important
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that numerous studies show that excessive screen time has adverse effects on children’s physical and mental health and learning. For example, one study at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found a connection between TV watching and obesity Specifically, the study found that kids who have TVs in their room have a higher risk of gaining excess weight than kids who don’t. Other studies have found connections between device use and:
- Sleep problems
- Behavioral problems
- Poor academic performance
- Attention problems
- Delays in language and social skills
These findings are not startling, considering the more time your children spend online, the less time they have for exercise, homework, reading and spending quality time with their friends and family. Additionally, the more time they spend online, the higher the risk of exposure to inappropriate content or content you wouldn’t want them to watch.
How to Limit Screen Time & Establish Guidelines
So, how can you and your family develop a plan that promotes a healthy balance between online and offline activities? There are many ways to figure out the best parameters for your family. But not all suggestions will work for every family. Here are several ideas to consider as you map out your plan to cut down on mindless screen time.
No screens at dinner or other meals
This one is an easy one to enforce. Make mealtime, whether at home or a restaurant, a phone-free zone for everyone (this means you, mom and dad). Everyone, including guests, must put their devices away or charge them during mealtime. Without phones, you may have to talk to each other!
Get input from your kids on setting guidelines
Children know they spend too much time online. In most cases, they will be willing participants in helping set parameters on device use. If you ask them for their ideas, it will be easier for them to follow the rules.
Set clear daily or weekly boundaries
Instead of saying, “Don’t spend too much time on your device!” set clear boundaries. Whether it’s a daily limit such as two hours a day, not getting on their device until after they’ve finished their homework and choirs, or a combination of both, knowing the guidelines will reduce arguments and help both parents and children adhere to the rules.
Establish time boundaries
In addition to setting weekly or daily limits, consider setting parameters on when screen time is allowed. For example, you may want to limit screen time in the morning before school and before bedtime.
Create tech-free zones
In addition to discouraging tech use at mealtime, keeping phones and other devices out of the bedroom or the room where they do their homework (if it’s outside their bedroom) can help. Not having access to their phone will help them focus on homework and eliminate late-night texting and social media scrolling that will interfere with sleep.
Create tech-free days
Consider creating a tech-free day once a week or biweekly, whatever works for you. Use this day to encourage non-device activities such as reading, playing , hiking, biking and spending quality time as a family. In addition, having a tech-free day shows your children that they can have fun off their devices and encourages them to get creative with spending their free time (like in the old days!).
Distinguish between engaging and mindless tech use
If your child reads on their device, composes music, codes or does other things on their device that is educational or a good use of their time, you may want to set a different limit on the time spent on these activities. While all tech use is not equal or bad, even creative time spent in front of the screen is time spent not doing homework or sleeping and still should have a limit.
How to Stick to Your New Screen Time Guidelines
You’ve created a digital device plan for your family. Great! Now, how do you get your children to follow it? You can’t follow them around all day, and you don’t want to watch over their shoulder, not that they’d let you.
One of the best ways to encourage your children to stick with your family’s digital use plan is to follow it yourself. Being a good role model is a powerful tool. If your kids see you on your phone all day, telling them they can’t do the same will be hard. Other ideas to help your kids stick to the plan include:
Check-in and follow up
After you set limits on media use, check in with your kids either verbally or with apps that allow you to track your children’s screen time. See what they’re watching, playing, posting and with whom they’re chatting. Follow-ups make them accountable.
Don’t keep the TV on in the background
Many families always keep a TV on to create background noise or give kids (and adults) something to do. Turning it off reduces mindless watching and screen time.
Give your kids non-tech options
Often, parents turn to devices to keep kids busy while they cook or do other chores. While that’s perfectly ok sometimes, try getting them started on other activities to keep them entertained. They won’t even think about their tablet or phone once you get your kids going on a puzzle, arts and crafts, games, comic book or a book on tape.
Encourage your kids to go outside
In addition to screen time limits, you can also require outside or exercise time to help encourage your child to put their device down. Outside time can be spent with friends, alone, or with family. Family bike rides, tennis games and walks are good for everyone.
Parents need to recognize that kids are growing up in a digital age and that it’s essential to set realistic goals and boundaries. And while you’re developing a digital use plan with your family, it’s also an excellent time to talk about internet safety and privacy.