Screen time and kids: Setting limits for better health
Living in a digital age has its benefits — practically instant access to information and the ability to connect with friends and family across the country. Naturally, people are more plugged in than ever, including young children. In fact, a study in JAMA Pediatrics found that between 1997 and 2014, screen time doubled for kids 2 years old and younger — but at what cost?1
Spending too much time on devices — whether it’s playing video games, watching television, searching the internet, or even engaging with “educational” apps — can be harmful to a young child’s physical and mental health. Kate Land, MD, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente’s Vacaville Medical Center and author of the Thriving Families blog, notes that children who spend more time looking at screens are more likely to be overweight and have disrupted sleep.
So, how can you help your kids develop healthy digital habits? Dr. Land offers her insights and tips for creating a digital diet that works for your family.
How much screen time is too much for children?
The answer often depends on age, but generally, less is better. Dr. Land finds the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media guidelines useful for navigating your child’s screen time:
- For children under 18 months — Avoid screens other than for video chats with family and friends. It’s important to not just hand the device to your child. Instead, remain present and engaged during the call.
- For children 18 to 24 months — You can introduce them to digital media, but be sure to choose high-quality programming and, most importantly, watch it with them. This way, you’re there to help kids understand what they’re seeing.
- For children 2 to 5 years — Limit screen time to one hour a day or less. And seek out high-quality apps and shows without any fast-paced or violent content. In need of recommendations? Dr. Land considers Common Sense Media, PBS Kids, and Sesame Workshop good resources for helping you vet appropriate media.
- For children 6 and older — Put consistent limits on the amount of time spent using digital media and the type of media. Also, make sure digital devices don’t get in the way of quality sleep and physical activity.
6 everyday screen-time tips
Overall, it’s important to teach your family to develop a healthy relationship with digital devices. Here are tips you can start using today.
1. Set limits
The age guidelines above can help you determine whether to cut back on your child’s screen time. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Your digital diet will depend on your family. The American Academy of Pediatrics developed an interactive Family Media Plan so you can easily create a more personalized plan, set goals, and establish rules that work for your family.
2. Be an example
It’s important to take stock of how often we interact with our own devices, too. “If our kids see us distracted by our phones,” Dr. Land notes, “they feel ignored.” When you’re with your children, make them your priority — not your phone. Try setting your phone on silent and turning off notifications, so you won’t get a ping for every news alert or text.
“Children under 2 can’t learn from screens yet,” Dr. Land explains. “They learn by interacting with their caregivers.” So instead of watching television or using an app, spend time singing, talking, reading, or playing together. “These activities will always be a better way to teach vocabulary, language, and social skills,” says Dr. Land.
3. Keep mealtime screen-free
Meals are a time for families to reconnect and focus on each other — not focus on screens. Implement a “no devices at the table” rule. If you’re out at a restaurant, bring activities like a pad of paper and crayons or stickers to keep young children occupied. Need help keeping mealtime as stress-free as possible? Check out other simple ways to improve your dinner routine.
4. Shut off screens before bed
For kids and adults alike, it’s especially important to wind down at night. Dr. Land recommends avoiding screens 1 to 2 hours before bedtime. Try removing all screens from the bedroom. Instead, designate a specific area of your home where everyone can charge their devices overnight.
5. Share screen time
When your children do watch television or use an online app, join them. By engaging with them, you’ll encourage social interaction, bonding, and learning.2 Try repeating the information that’s shown and then ask your child to say it back to you. Make connections between what’s seen on screen and the real world. If a television show features a bird chirping, for example, take your child for a walk and point out birds and the sounds they’re making. “This helps them connect digital learning with the world around them,” says Dr. Land.
6. Avoid using devices to calm kids
While this approach may work in the short term, Dr. Land notes that using devices to calm kids prevents them from learning to self-regulate or self-soothe. Instead, help them focus on how to physically respond to their emotions using techniques such as deep breathing. You can also talk through the moment, hug them, sit quietly as they work through it, or distract them with something other than a screen — like their favorite book or song.
As a mother of 3, Dr. Land knows that parenting can be incredibly tough. There may be days when a parent needs to give their attention to an older child — or just reset. So, don’t beat yourself up if your child occasionally consumes more screen time than usual. Just be aware of what they’re watching and for how long. Then, you can readjust your family’s digital diet as needed.
Cynthia Kathleen Seitz, MD, a pediatrician at the Kaiser Permanente Salmon Creek Medical Office, agrees. “The idea of zero screens for the rest of your life is not realistic. But if a child is having issues, like throwing a temper tantrum when electronics are taken away, then it’s time to do a digital fast to break the habit that has developed,” Dr. Seitz says. Two weeks without electronics — TV, videogames, tablets, and apps — is usually enough to reset the brain. “It can really improve concentration, behavior, and anxiety,” says Dr. Seitz.
Still not sure how much screen time is best?
If you’re having trouble finding a balance for yourself or a little one, talk to your doctor or your child’s pediatrician. They’ll help you find the right solution for you and your family.
1Weiwei Chen and Jessica L. Adler, “Assessment of Screen Exposure in Young Children, 1997 to 2014,” JAMA Pediatrics, February 18, 2019.
2Children and Media: Tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, May 1, 2018.