Being a parent in the digital age doesn’t work exactly like it does in the parenting manuals. Plenty of us dads and moms are just fine with mashing up a purée or changing baby diapers. But what about baby’s first YouTube video?
Managing the wide-open web for our kids dumps hundreds of new decisions in our laps — decisions we’re often not prepared to make, but that will affect our kids’ growth and development, and even their health, for years to come. For many of us parents, first on that list of tough choices is how to handle screen time.
How much screen time is the right amount? Is it really bad if our children get more than that? What if they get way more than that? Let’s have a quick look at the research to get our bearings.
Screen Time Tip: When you’re calculating the hours your children spend on screens, don’t forget TVs. In studies that looked at how screen time affects early child development, too much TV — especially background TV — lowered cognitive and language performance.1
In 2018, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania wanted to find out how the time young adults spent on social media affected their happiness. She monitored a group of 143 college students for three weeks. This is what she found.
If a student was feeling depressed or isolated, limiting their social media time to half an hour per day made them feel better about themselves and less alone than the students who binged.2 In other words, too much time socializing on screens actually made students unhappier in real life.
The same holds true for kids. At least one recent study has shown that younger kids (10 and under) who hang out on Instagram and Snapchat may have trouble making friends in the real world.3 They also tend to pick up other bad digital habits, such as visiting dangerous websites and falling victim to cyber predators.
Unfortunately, poor digital hygiene is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to kids and screen time. Spending too many hours plugged into devices waiting for comments, likes, and DMs works like a drug on young minds. Research has shown that overdoing it on screens triggers ADHD-like behavior that makes it harder for children to concentrate, fall asleep, and even cope socially.4 Young screen addicts, the same studies tell us, also have higher cholesterol and blood pressure and tend toward obesity.
So the verdict is in on screen time. Too much is bad for kids psychologically, socially, and even neurologically. Now for the million-dollar question: How do you know if your child is getting too much screen time?
FYI: Time isn’t the only factor parents need to consider when monitoring screens. The number of devices, the content and type of media, and the time of day also influence children’s behavior. Watching a TV documentary on the Hubble telescope after school is one thing. Lying in bed at midnight with your smartphone because you can’t shut off Call of Duty is quite another.
Reaching a healthy balance of screen time and web-free time isn’t easy — not even for adults. Before the pandemic, adult screen time had already jumped from 26 hours (2018) to 28.5 hours per week (2020).5 Then, during lockdown, we shattered that record: Screen time skyrocketed 70 percent around the globe.6
But here’s the thing: We adults may be able to cope with the consequences of internet binging, but our kids can’t. So what, if any, are the medical guidelines here?
The experts in this largely uncharted field are the doctors at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). Here’s what they have to say.7
For your “pretweens,” two hours of screen entertainment per weekday is the hard limit. (They can have a little more on the weekend.) If two hours seems high, remember that this includes TV time. We’re talking about an episode or two after school with an hour left over for playing games. In other words, more than enough tablet time.
Even though screen time is harder to limit for tweens and teens, the two-hour recommended weekday time limit doesn’t change.
Here’s what will change: You’re going to hear a lot of “But, dad, I’ve got a project to do.” Which, of course, may just be code for “OMG. I’m not done Snapchatting yet.”
So, as we move up into the murkier waters of preadolescence and beyond, we’ve got to double-check those excuses and limit social screen time. Tough work? Yes! But the legwork will pay off once they graduate into young adulthood.
Young adults are a double-edged sword when it comes to healthy screen time. On the one hand, they’re more responsible. If they grew up with screen time limits, they should be second nature now.
But, like us adults, they’ve come to terms with the fact that a huge chunk of their lives is going to be spent online — working, chilling, and socializing. (Plus, they might not be down with mom keeping tabs on their screen time anymore.)
My advice? You don’t want your child to leave the nest unable to put their smartphone down for more than 10 minutes. So until they’re 18, stand fast and set your sights on the AACAP’s two hours per day — with exceptions for verified school work.
Did You Know? Using screens before you go to bed is bad, right? Not necessarily. According to a recent study in the Journal of Sleep Research, if you’re not multitasking and you’re not watching too much, a little Netflix can actually improve the quality of our sleep.8 Yay!
So the science says two hours is the maximum dose of screen time our children should be getting daily. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that many of our kids are exceeding this limit. Should we be freaking out?
I don’t think so. But if we want to keep our kids safe in cyberspace, it’s probably time to introduce some “screen time mindfulness” into our digital hygiene routines. Here are five fairly easy adjustments we can all make today.
It’s common sense. Two hours of mowing down foes with your battle rifle on Halo Infinite isn’t going to have the same effect on our kids’ brains as drawing comic books on their iPads. Research bears this out. Quality, educational content with a creative component really does help kids develop critical thinking and social skills, on screens both big and small.9
When you’re approving your child’s apps, look for interactive content. It’s better on the brain than passive viewing. Finally, spending time together on screens with your kids, or “co-viewing,” promotes a whole range of healthy behaviors, including better sleep, socializing, and anger management.
If you’re new to parental controls, Google Family Link is a good place to start. Just download the Family Link app, sign in, and link your child’s Android device(s).
Family Link lets you set bedtimes and screen time limits (per device). This will by default cut down on screen binges, but it will also help kids learn to partition the day into screen time and screen-free time.
Screen Time Tip: Apple has its own version of parental controls, which is a little more tricky to get right. If your child is on an iPad or iPhone, you’ll definitely want to look into them — especially if you don’t want your 6-year-old to rack up $16,000 of App Store purchases under the radar.
The parenting app Jiminy claims that it has actual data showing that 1 in 7 kids starts sexting as early as 10.10 Yikes!
If Jiminy is anywhere in the ballpark, we parents need to talk to our kids about the internet earlier than we thought — not just about sexting, but about cyberbullying, digital hygiene, and the thousands of warped sleazeballs that hang out online with the sole purpose of stalking child victims.
We also need to understand that digital literacy isn’t a one-off talk like, say, the birds and the bees. Our kids will be living a large part of their lives on screens in some shape or form. If they feel comfortable having regular catch-ups about their online adventures, they’ll be more likely to turn to us when they’re in real trouble.
Did You Know? Cyber predators are real, but so are hackers and identity thieves. Check out these expert tips on smart digital hygiene to keep your family one step ahead of the crooks.
The jig is up for social media. They said it would connect us. Instead, it’s left us depleted, insecure, and unmoored. Kids are particularly vulnerable here because many of them don’t really have the ability to articulate how they’re feeling — whether they’re being bullied by schoolmates, trying to capture the perfect selfie,11 or being stalked by a creep or catfish.
We’ve already seen what this toxic brew does to children. It can make them lonely, depressed, overweight, anxious, and irritable.
On the other hand, we can’t keep our kids off social media forever. My suggestion? Take TikTok’s advice and keep them social-free until they’re 13.12 When they do sign up — with or without your blessing — do your best to limit their social screen time to the healthy limit we outlined above.
Here’s a story. Tell me if it sounds familiar. The other night, I was with my family at a restaurant. Two tables away were three 20-something guys, each plugged into his own smartphone, blank-faced, swiping for minutes at a time. Every so often, one of them would snap out of it, look up, and then dive right back in.
One of the most important examples we can set for our kids is not just when it’s ok to use devices, but where. No phones at the dinner table may sound cliché, but it’s essential “screen hygiene” if you want to keep your kids from ending up like the antsy dudes in my story.
Other device-free zones and modes you can consider are beds, walks, and gatherings. You can also add movie time to this list. While you need a TV screen to watch Netflix, you don’t want to teach your kids that multitasking on a small screen at the same time is all right.
FYI: In 2021, the Cyberbullying Research Center interviewed 2,546 U.S. teens ages 13 to 17. Nearly 45 percent said they’d been bullied online at least once in their lives, while 23.5 percent admitted they’d been bullied in the past year.13
So that niggling feeling you had that your kids were logging in more than a healthy dose of screen time? It’s probably true. The good news is, you can fix the problem pretty easily by being more attentive and setting some basic screen hygiene rules.
From experience both as a digital security expert and a parent, I’d say the biggest weapon in our digital parenting arsenal is opening up a dialogue about screens early. (Our kids won’t learn to steer clear of predators unless we tell them what predators are and what they do.)
And, as with everything else we do as parents — online and offline — setting the right example is key.
Madigan, Sheri; Brae Anne McArthur; Ciana Anhorn; et al. (2020, Mar 23). Associations Between Screen Use and Child Language Skills: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics.
Hunt, Melissa G., Rachel Marx, Courtney Lipson and Jordyn Young. (2018, Dec). No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression. Guilford Press Periodicals.
Charmaraman, Linda, Lynch Alicia Doyle, Amanda M. Richer, and Jennifer M. Grossman. (2022, Feb). Associations of early social media initiation on digital behaviors and the moderating role of limiting use. Computers in Human Behavior via ScienceDirect.
Lissak, Gadi. (2018, Jul). Adverse physiological and psychological effects of screen time on children and adolescents: Literature review and case study. Elsevier via PubMed from National Library of Medicine.
Wagner, Brooke E. et al. (2021, Apr 27). Recreational Screen Time Behaviors during the COVID-19 Pandemic in the U.S.: A Mixed-Methods Study among a Diverse Population-Based Sample of Emerging Adults. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, via PubMed Central from National Library of Medicine.
Beech, Mark. (2020, Mar 25). COVID-19 Pushes Up Internet Use 70% And Streaming More Than 12%, First Figures Reveal. Forbes.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2020, Feb). Screen Time and Children.
Ellithorpe, Morgan E. et al. (2022, Feb 8). The complicated impact of media use before bed on sleep: Results from a combination of objective EEG sleep measurement and media diaries. European Sleep Research Society via PubMed from National Library of Medicine.
Canadian Paediatric Society, Digital Health Task Force. (2017, Nov 22). Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world. Pediatrics & Child Health via PubMed Central from National Library of Medicine.
Jiminy Advanced Parenting Solutions. (2019). Children and Sexting.
Ehmke, Rachel. (2022). What Selfies Are Doing to Self-Esteem. Child Mind Institute.
TikTok. (2022). Guardian's Guide.
Patchin, Justin W. (2021, Jun 1). 2021 Cyberbullying Data. Cyberbullying Research Center.