Kids and Screen Time: How Much is Too Much?

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For years, there’s been a persistent concern about how much TV kids should be allowed to watch. There are TVs throughout most homes (the average US household has 2.5), and now there are computers, tablets, and smartphones. We don’t just have to worry about kids’ TV programming — we now have kids’ websites, computer games, and apps. There are even smartwatches designed for kids! While all of this interactivity and flash is cool, and while we can make the argument that kids may be learning valuable hand-eye coordination by using touch screens, at a certain point we have to ask ourselves: how much screen time is too much?

What the Experts Say

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a firm and conservative stance on kids and screen time. For kids under the age of two, they recommend that parents do their best to discourage screen time of any kind. No TV, no apps, no movies — nothing. Of course, this can be a huge challenge, especially when there are screens everywhere. In fact, the waiting areas of some pediatricians’ offices have TVs! Kids older than two, according to the AAP, should have their entertainment-related screen time limited to just one or two hours per day.

The AAP also encourages parents to make a media plan with their kids and talk to them about what they watch and use on screens. They also recommend setting a consistent “screens-off” time (like a “lights-out” time) when everything gets shut off and put away until tomorrow. While they AAP does not make a strong distinction between educational and entertainment content, they strongly suggest open communication and clear rules for media consumption.

Real Life Interaction

One of the biggest detriments of screen time is that it takes away from time spent interacting with family and friends. Moreover, face-to-face communication can help kids learn important social skills like picking up on nonverbal cues and reading facial emotions and signals. Beyond that, kids who have less screen time and more interpersonal interaction have, on average, higher grades in school, more persistence for difficult tasks, and better quality sleep at night. Finally, time spent watching or interacting with a screen means less time having active fun — the kind that keeps kids healthy and helps to prevent obesity.

New Technology Can Help

There is the compelling argument that teaching kids how to use screens and new technology in a positive way helps to prepare them for the future. These are skills, many agree, that will be important for them to know as they grow. Like it or not, we live in a tech-based world, and ignoring it entirely isn’t beneficial. Plus, it’s not like screen time is an either/or proposition — it’s not either kids are with screens or they’re with people. Parents can watch TV shows and play with games and apps with their children, taking time to point out important aspects during and discuss them after.

So How Much?

Like many things related to child rearing, there is no definitive answer about screen time. Much of the research and expert advice suggests that limiting is the way to go. However, when used correctly, some guided screen time can be quite beneficial. The best approach for you depends on your family and your needs. However, consistency, communication, and occasional evaluation of your family’s media plan is probably your best bet.