Screen Time for Kids: How Much Is Too Much?
How much screen time should children and teens be allowed each day?
Recently, questions like this have been weighing on every parent’s mind. At what age should children begin to use screens? At what age is it appropriate to buy your child a phone? Could the use of screens increase the risks of behavioral disorders and sleep problems in children and teens? The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, many of these questions have no concrete answer as of yet.
Times are a-changin’
Screens are all around us, and they are certainly here to stay. From televisions to smartphones, from tablets to laptops, there is literally a screen for everything. In 2017, 98% of homes in the US with young children had a mobile touchscreen device compared to 2011 when only 52% of households had such technology.1 Things are changing, and they’re changing fast!
Consider these stats:1
- In Australia, children under 2 years are reported to have an average weekly screen time of 14.2 hours, while those between 2-5 years old average 25.9 hours.
- In France, 78% of children were using a mobile touchscreen device by 14 months of age with 90% using by age 2.
- Across five countries in Southeast Asia, 66% of children between 3-8 years of age are reportedly using their parents’ mobile touchscreen device, while 14% of children already own their own devices.
- In Britain, 21% of children aged 3-4 years of age are reported to own their own devices.
Was your reaction to those numbers a negative or a positive one? Part of the dilemma surrounding age-appropriate screen time is an internal conflict of interest. Due to the demands of modern life, education and tech-focused organizations argue that screen time can be used as an educational advantage and may teach kids to be savvy in an increasingly tech-dependent society. On the other hand, some public health officials and health associations warn that too much tech time may pose a threat to young developing minds—causing them to miss out on real-life experience and lack the invaluable social skills learned through face-to-face interaction. Both sides of the discussion make some valid points.
What is replaced by screen time?
Like so many other things in life, a healthy balance is the best solution—but that’s easier said than done. It’s clear that parents have reason to closely monitor their child’s screen time. In fact, children ages 8-10 spend an average of six hours a day in front of a screen, including TV time.2 For kids 11-14, this number skyrockets to nine hours a day, with five dedicated to television watching.2 And for teens ages 15-18, that number averages out to 7.5 hours a day, with 4.5 in front of a TV. When you stop to think about what else they could be doing, these numbers seem alarmingly high. (Adults are no exception to this either.)
Some alternatives to screen time:
- Activities supporting mental and physical wellbeing, such as sports, neighborhood play, exploring, and using their imagination (either alone or with friends)
- Engaging in social connection and learning to cultivate face-to-face relationships with peers, including reading emotional cues and developing empathy as well as problem-solving skills in group settings
- Learning interconnectedness and managing responsibilities that come from supporting family and local community networks through chores, volunteering, and taking part in events
- Getting restful sleep and physical downtime to restore the brain and body
- Reading books and engaging in other learning opportunities that don’t involve screens
- Using creative expression (e.g., writing, drawing, painting, playing an instrument)
- Participating in mindful, present, and nutritious eating time with family, so as to avoid overindulgence in junk foods
All of the above suffer when screen time overtakes the activities of an unplugged, healthful daily life.
Just how bad is it?
Research has indicated that more than one hour a day of screen time is linked to lower psychological wellbeing in kids and teens.3 And using tech devices for more than seven hours carries twice the risk, with adverse effects such as increased worry, not finishing tasks, loss of curiosity, inability to maintain self-control, and elevated emotional instability. In some cases, high-risk users, over time, experience chronic anxiety and depression.3
But it gets even worse. Spending more time engrossed in tech devices is also linked to an increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases and being overweight,4 as well as poorer sleep patterns.5 Adequate sleep in kids is associated with lower obesity risk, better psychological wellbeing, improved cognitive functioning, and lower risk-taking behaviors, so a lack of quality sleep is not something to take lightly.6
While it’s clear that screen dependency can cause unnecessary physiological problems for young people, it’s an effect that can likely be avoided with careful monitoring.
What can you do?
There are a few things you can do to support a healthy amount of screen time for your kids:
- Be an example. Making a difference starts with you, the parent. Research shows that parents’ relationship with tech and media is associated with their children’s screen time. The less you engage, the less they will, and vice versa. This is especially important to consider at the dinner table.7
- Limit screen time and set content boundaries. Research publications have established some parameters to help parents monitor their kids’ screen time:8
- For children under 2, screen time aside from video chatting with loved ones should be very limited. For parents who want to introduce their kids to tech at this tender age, it’s best to stick to high-quality educational programs.
- For children ages 2-5, limit screen time to one hour per day including only high-quality programs. And during that time, it’s best to watch alongside your children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
- Finally, for kids 6 and older, place consistent limits on the types of media they consume and how much. It’s also important to make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health.
- Some researchers and practitioners also recommend limiting screen time to two hours/day after age 5, not including educational screen time that is used for school and studying.9
- Encourage real-life social time and physical activity. Certain activities should always be screen-free such as dinnertime, playtime, quality family time, and of course, bedtime.10 Encourage your kids to hang out with their friends on a regular basis and get some form of exercise every day. Ideally, children should not engage in any sedentary screen time before age 5, while they are still learning about and exploring their physical environment.10
In a tech-obsessed world, managing your child’s screen time is a job with conflicting interests. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what’s right for your family. Try some of the tips outlined above to help your children develop a healthy relationship with tech as well as their physical environment. Remember: The right balance can make all the difference in your child’s health.
- Straker L et al. Conflicting guidelines on young children's screen time and use of digital technology create policy and practice dilemmas. J Pediatr. 2018;202:300–303.
- CDC. Screen time vs. lean time. https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dch/multimedia/infographics/getmoving.htm. Accessed December 18, 2018.
- Twenge JM et al. Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Prev Med Rep. 2018;12:271-283.
- Braig S et al. Screen time, physical activity and self-esteem in children: the Ulm birth cohort study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(6):E1275.
- Hale L et al. Screen time and sleep among school-aged children and adolescents: A systematic literature review. Sleep Med Rev. 2015;21:50–58.
- LeBourgeois MK et al. Digital media and sleep in childhood and adolescence. Pediatrics. 2017;140(2):S92–S96.
- Tang L et al. Mothers’ and fathers’ media parenting practices associated with young children’s screen-time: a cross-sectional study. BMC Obes. 2018;5:37.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP announces new recommendations for children’s media use. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx. Accessed December 18, 2018.
- Mayo Clinic. How much screen time is too much for kids? The Mayo Clinic Minute. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-minute-how-much-screen-time-is-too-much-for-kids/. Accessed December 18, 2018.
- Canadian Paediatric Society, Digital Health Task Force. Screen time and young children: promoting health and development in a digital world. Paediatr Child Health. 2017;22(8):461–468.
Submitted by the Metagenics Marketing Team