There's a reason more parents than ever are asking this question - and also why there are more opinions than ever. Screens can feel like they’re everywhere these days - from classrooms to family rooms - which leaves parents asking “how much is too much?”
According to Dr. Jennifer M. Cross from NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children's Hospital, almost half of children under eight have their own tablet and spend an average of 2.25 hours a day on it. In the Common Sense Media Census released in 2022, researchers found that kids ages 8-12 spend up to 5.5 hours per day in front of a screen.
Startling statistics from the National Institute of Health (NIH) reveal that children who spend more than two hours a day on computers tend to score lower on language and thinking tests. Even more concerning is that children who spend more than seven hours a day glued to screens show thinning of the brain's cortex, which is the area that controls critical thinking.
Although experts like Dr. Cross indicate that this research is still inconclusive, there is enough data to suggest that excessive time spent with a screen might hinder a child's development, unlike previous generations. It could impact their learning abilities and limit their exploration.
But what does this early research suggest about the true impact of excessive screen time?
While “screen time” concerns are warranted at any age (adults are no exception), it’s worth focusing specifically on younger kids. That’s because children, especially those under three, are developing rapidly. As it turns out, introducing them to too much screen time at such young ages can have some adverse effects. Recent research suggests that young children who spend excessive time in front of the screen may struggle with observing everyday activities, leading to “tunnel vision,” hindering their ability to learn and understand the world around them.
But the consequences of excessive screen time go beyond the present. Children who can't observe and interpret the world as well as their peers will also have difficulty learning and developing in the long run. Too much screen time can even impact their social interactions and problem-solving skills later in life.
The data is clear—kids who spend too much time in front of a screen tend to perform worse on reading tests and have shorter attention spans. It's something worth considering if you want the best for your child's development.
When should you introduce your kids to screens?
Determining the appropriate amount of screen time for kids can be tricky, and different recommendations exist for different age groups. But the good news is, you’re not alone! Expert resources like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offer guidelines to help parents navigate this digital age.
For children under 18-24 months, the AAP suggests avoiding screen time, with the exception of video chatting with family. This age group benefits from interactions with loved ones, even if it's through a screen.
Recommendations for children aged 2-5 are to give them no more than one hour of screen use per day. When they do have screen time, it's important to choose high-quality programming and educational content.
As for children ages 5-8, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how much screen time is too much. While the adage "less is more" may be appropriate in general, that doesn't mean "nothing is best." It's important to consider your child's educational and social needs as well as the possible negative consequences of heightened screen time. Ultimately, it's up to the parents to determine what works best for their child and their family's routines. Monitoring time spent with a screen is still important, but finding a balance is key.
For children over nine, the AAP encourages parents to have conversations with their children about their use of screens. Discussing what they watch, how they use electronic devices, and what they learn from their content helps foster lifelong habits of responsible screen use.
Does screen time impact children’s sleep?
Screens can also affect children's sleep patterns, just like they do for adults. Blue light emitted from screens can disrupt sleep and lead to poor sleep quality, so it's essential to establish screen-free zones, especially in bedrooms.
Studies have shown that infants exposed to screens in the evening have shorter nap times. Teenagers can also experience negative effects from excessive screen use, such as increased anxiety and interference with learning and cognitive performance.
While screens can be convenient tools to entertain children, relying on them too heavily to calm a child can create long-term issues with self-soothing. Children need to develop healthy coping mechanisms that don't include using a screen.
Screen time isn't entirely negative
Amidst all the concerning data around screen time, there is one important thing to remember: Not all screen time is created equal. In fact, it’s worth repeating - not all screen time is bad. And in fact, it's often unrealistic to eliminate screens from a child's life completely. That said, ensuring that screen time is productive and balanced is crucial.
What’s most important is knowing your child and finding the step-by-step ways to help them learn how to use media devices responsibly. Whether it’s a tablet for learning or a smart watch to track your child’s location and stay connected, technology is a tool that requires training and responsibility.
How much screen time is healthy?
Here’s a scary question: Do you know how much time your child spends staring at a screen? For many parents, the answer is no. Dr. Cross believes parents have a crucial role in managing their child's screen time, and she offers some valuable advice.
One way to keep tabs on your child's screen time is through co-watching. Join your child as they watch TV or use other video devices. Be active with the content by asking your kids about what they see and sharing your own observations. You can also make watching tv more fun by singing along with the show and making it an interactive experience. This not only helps your child better understand what they're watching but also improves their social skills.
When it comes to YouTube, social media apps, and other streaming services that offer endless autoplay options, don't worry. There are ways to monitor that too. While it may be challenging to know what your child is watching at all times, many streaming platforms offer controls that allow parents to set limits. One way to better monitor what your child watches is by taking advantage of resources like Common Sense Media to check if the content is age-appropriate for your child, regardless of their age.
Establishing limits with technology
Creating healthy screen habits is important, and this can be achieved by setting boundaries around mealtimes, family time, and bedtime. Establish device curfews, limit screen time in the car (except for long trips), and encourage physical activity.
However, it's not just about limiting your child's screen time; it's about leading by example. When parents reduce their own screen time and focus on being present in activities like exercise, cooking, and face-to-face interactions, children will naturally follow suit.
Lastly, remember the big three: sleep, healthy nutrition, and physical activity. These are crucial for both children and adults. Excessive screen time can negatively impact all three areas, resulting in poor eating habits, lack of sleep, and reduced physical activity.
So, how much is too much?
Want to build a healthy relationship with screen time for your child? It's important to be an active participant in what they're watching and how often they're in front of a screen. And here's the key: setting limits and boundaries around screen usage for both you and your child will lead to better outcomes.
For many families, the challenge with screens simply comes from too much, too soon. More than ever, families are choosing to start slow, keep screen time intentional and limited, and find helpful tools like kid-safe smartwatches to delay jumping into the world of smartphones too soon.
But deciding how much screen time is too much for kids is not just about saying “NO” or restricting media. It’s about being proactive with positive alternatives. By prioritizing face-to-face interactions or outside activity, you'll enhance your child's critical thinking skills, mental & physical health, and help them ultimately build better healthier relationships long term.. Plus, creating screen time rules and limiting screen usage has been linked to higher test scores as kids grow older.
Establishing healthy screen habits
By encouraging your child to use their imagination and engage in cognitive activities instead of relying on screens, you'll be setting them up for long-term success.
Also, keep in mind that fostering healthy habits like being physically active and keeping screens out of the bedroom will set your child on a path toward healthier habits as adults. One way to create these healthy habits is by opting to use different technology.
Not every child needs a smartphone or tablet. You can implement boundaries by having one tablet for the family, and if you’re concerned about your child’s safety, then choosing a smart watch may be a good fit. Smart watches, such as the Cosmo smart watch, allow kids to stay connected through text and phone calls while limiting the amount of time they can spend on a screen.
Determining the right amount of time spent with a screen is a personal decision, but understanding the recommendations of pediatric researchers is a great starting point in helping your child develop healthy habits early on.