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Screen Time for Kids: How Much is Too Much?

There are a lot of screens in your kid's life. Here are some tips for teaching him how to have a healthy relationship with his devices.

These days, screen time for kids involves more than just TV -- it includes, computers, tablets and phones, too. With so many options available to your little ones, it can be hard to track just how much time they're playing games, messaging friends, browsing their favorite sites or watching videos on devices.

One way to keep track of screen time is to add screen time to your list of daily events, just like you do with meals, homework and bath time, suggests David Bickham, an instructor of pediatrics in the division of adolescent medicine at Boston Children's Hospital and a research scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health. "Schedule screen time, just like you do with everything else," Bikham explains. "It's not an option any other time of the day." This saves you from having to keep track of how much time your kids are spending with screens, and it also establishes clear rules about when your children can expect to have access to gadgets.

Here's what you need to know about screen time for kids and how to set limits for your family.

What to Watch
Some parents may not realize that educational shows still count as screen time. "In general, educational programming like PBS shows is preferred," says Michele Ybarra, the president and research director of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, a non-profit research organization focused on understanding the impact of new technologies on adolescent health. Even if the show is teaching your child to read, you still need to set some time limits.

Shows that are sheer entertainment should be closely monitored for appropriate content. "Content that depicts violence, explicit sexual material and even shows that glorify substance use -- including cigarettes and alcohol -- should be avoided as much as possible," reminds Ybarra. This might seem obvious, but sometimes these things -- especially some form of violence -- can sneak into shows in subtle ways, so pay attention to what your kids are watching.

Make a Plan
Entertainment "screen time" should be limited to two hours a day for children ages 3 to 18, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics, and for 2-year-olds and younger, there should be no screen time. Even with such concrete guidelines, it can be confusing to understand if screen time for kids is good, bad or inconsequential. What exactly is OK for your kids to watch?

Even if the content your kids are consuming is nurturing their minds, it still needs to be regulated. Though screen time isn't inherently bad, anything done in excess can have ill effects. Knowing how much screen time your child should have and what's appropriate for them to watch is only part of the battle. To ensure healthy screen time for your kids, experts suggest developing a family plan about how much and what to watch -- and when.

Lead By Example
Ybarra advises that once parents have a plan they are comfortable with, they need to unambiguously share it with their children. "I think it's helpful for parents to clearly articulate the rules to everyone -- like at dinner or a family meeting -- and answer questions they might have," she says.

With a plan in place, a key factor to success is parental involvement. Parents can show effective "media diets" to help their children learn to be selective and healthy in what they consume. "Model media use which is appropriate for kids," Bickham says. In other words, it's not fair to expect your kids to respect screen time rules if you don't. This could include no screens at the dinner table or no TVs in bedroom. If these are the rules for your kids, then Mom and Dad should do the same.

Get Everyone on Board
If your kids are spending regular time with other family members or babysitters, it's important that you talk to them about what the house rules are regarding screen time. "It might be useful for all caregivers to sit down and talk with each other about their goals for screen time rules and agree on a plan," Ybarra says.

Above all, parents need to stay engaged with their children and keep an eye on the screens in their lives. Take an active role in children's media education by watching programs with them and discussing values. "Be aware, be involved and be engaged," Bickham says. "The key is to think of balance. Be involved with it, and break away from having it be a default activity."

And check out these 5 screen-free activities for kids.

Kimberly DeMucha Kalil is a freelance journalist and software consultant living in Southern Arizona with her husband and two children. Like lots of parents out there, she's trying to figure out how to navigate the ever-changing digital world and the countless screens in their lives.

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