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The Complete Guide to the Right Amount of Screen Time by Age

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Are your kids getting too much screen time?

According to a 2016 Nielsen report, American adults spend an average of 226 minutes a day watching TV and another 191 minutes on their smartphones. Unfortunately, it’s not much better for kids. Children aged up to 8 spend and average of 139 minutes a day in front of a screen.

How much screen time does your family get? Is it too much? Too much screen time for children can lead to speech delay, sleep disruption, obesity, and other developmental issues. As a pediatrician, here’s what I recommend when it comes to screen time:

Screen Time For Babies

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children younger than 18 months. The one exception is video chatting with family members.

Some parents will be tempted to use phones and videos to keep their babies occupied or to help them calm down when crying. Resist. You can use toys, pacifiers, or other physical methods to help your child soothe. You do NOT want your child to start depending on technology as a coping mechanism at such a young age.

Screen Time For Toddlers

Parents can begin to introduce screen time at around age 2, but should stick to high-quality, education, age-appropriate content. You should limit screen time to no more than an hour a day.  Too much TV can hamper language acquisition and other mental development.

Parents should NOT use the TV as a babysitter. If you are going to let your child watch TV, you should watch with them and make sure they are actively engaging with the content. For example, if the show has a song, get up and dance with your toddler. Don’t let them sit idly in front of the TV.

Screen Time For Elementary-Age Kids

It’s important at this age to make sure you are setting limits on how much and what kind of screen time your child has. Your child should know what the expectations are, and there should be consequences if those expectations are not met.

One of the primary concerns with too much TV at this age is obesity. If sitting and watching TV is replacing physical activity, children can gain weight. Unfettered media use also exposes children to more advertising and can influence poor eating habits. Make sure your kids are spending time doing physical activity.

At this age your kids might start becoming interested in video games as well. Be VERY careful about what you allow here. Many video games are violent or contain content that is inappropriate for children. Other games trigger pleasure centers in the brain and can be highly addictive. Proceed with caution and set clear boundaries.

Keep screens out of bedrooms! This includes tablets and other devices. Screen time can seriously hurt your child’s sleep, which in turn can hamper their growth, hurt their performance in school, and a host of other problems. Additionally, screens in bedrooms limits your ability as the parent to monitor the volume and type of content your child consumes.

Screen Time For Teens

This is where it gets really complicated. At this age, your child is going to want their own device or smartphone. All their friends at school will have them.  What a dilemma! You’ve probably heard horror stories about teens becoming addicted to their phones. On the other hand, you don’t want your child to be a social pariah. What do you do?

I wish I could answer this question for you. Unfortunately, it really depends on your child and your family. You know your child’s tendencies and limits better than anyone else. Choose a solution that makes sense for your family. Keep in mind, you won’t be able to shelter your child from technology forever. It’s a reality of modern life. Your best bet is to choose a solution that best equips your child to use technology safely and appropriately into adulthood.

If you do opt to allow your child to have their own device, it’s supremely important that you set appropriate limitations. Screen free time is essential for your family and will help prevent your teen from developing technology-related dependence or anxiety. This will be hard for them—keep in mind, their phone is their conduit to their social life—but you need to be firm. Meal times are a great place to start.

The exact limits you set will depend on your family, but keep in mind, your teen’s brain is still developing at this point. Make sure that your family makes time for other activities like reading, physical activity, conversation, and family time.

Safety is a big concern at this age as well. Your teen is going to have access to the internet, whether they have their own device or not. It’s possible for them to communicate with people who might intend to harm them. They will also have a nearly infinite depository of pornography and other destructive content just a few clicks away.

The most important thing here is to develop a relationship of trust and respect with your teen. You can’t possibly police their every action on the internet. Even if you think you are blocking content on your home wifi network, there are a million other ways your child could access this content that you don’t even know about. Let them know your boundaries and expectations, and that you trust them to comply Ultimately, they will have to make their own choices, and you need to equip them and empower them to make the right choice.

That said, there are several tools you can use in your home to make it easier on your teens. Apps like Qustodio and OurPact can allow you to see what content your teen is using and set limits on screen time. At home there are tons of options for filtering content and keeping your network safe for your kids. Just remember, these devices are not foolproof. There are always workarounds. Your primary focus should be on teaching your teens correct principles so that they can make the right choices.

When it Comes to Screen Time, Less is More

If you’re wondering if your family is getting too much screen time, the answer is probably yes. Reducing your screen time by any amount has the potential to help with your children’s development and help your family connect more.

Keep in mind, you can’t really expect your kids to follow your guidelines if you don’t follow them yourself. So often, parents are the WORST examples for always looking at their phones. Any rules you establish for your family, make sure you are following them yourself (at least while your kids are awake).

So start looking for ways you can reduce your screen time, establish screen-free time, and enjoy the way it helps your family come up with creative ways to spend time together!

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