Screen time rules are really hard.

On the one hand, there is a growing body of research telling parents that too much screen time is clearly associated with a variety of problems, including lower grades, anxiety, loneliness, and sleep problems.  (citations below)  On the other hand, those devices sure are fun and our kids love them and it creates conflict when we try to limit their use.  What is a parent to do?!

As in all things parenting, the answer depends.  (and on a lot of factors, too.)  In the interests of keeping this article less than 15 pages, we’ll just discuss a few, and include a couple of other great resources at the bottom.

Let’s start with your screen use.  Your personal screen use (for entertainment) will influence your child’s screen use.  If your actions consistently demonstrate that going outside or reading or spending time with friends is important, then your family baseline for screen use is going to be naturally lower.  If you notice that you are both using screens more than you’d like, start with your own role modeling and see if you can subsequently invite your child to join you in whatever fun activity you switch to.  (This works better with younger kids, but can be effective with any age if you choose carefully and pitch it well.)

The youngest children really shouldn’t have any screen time (the AAP recommends zero screen time for under 18 months, and no more than 1 hour per day for under 5s).

School aged kids can indeed gain skills and content from age-appropriate apps, games, shows, etc, and this can be part of a well-balanced life that also includes even larger amounts of exercise, interpersonal interaction, and outdoor time.

By adolescence, if not before, many schools expect children to use screens in school or at home, and it can be a functional part of a well-balanced life.  BUT, as your child approaches adolescence, developmental factors make finding that balance very, very difficult because your child wants/fights to have more control over their screen use, and they won’t always make good decisions about it.

Side bar about that last sentence: timeless adolescent parenting challenge: when you give your child control over a thing, your child will, at some time:

  • Do the thing poorly (ie, not do the thing as well as you would have)
  • Do the wrong thing.
  • Do nothing (ie, not even agree with you that something needs doing.)

What really sucks about that is that even though those 3 things are true, it’s still best to look for ways to ongoingly increase over time how much control you give your kids.  This applies to screen time, homework, food, friends, and pretty much everything else.  (*)  So instead of managing them so that mistakes don’t happen, we let adolescents increasingly be in control, and then look for ways to help them learn and grow from their mistakes.  This provides opportunities to grow critical skills like independence, resilience, risk-taking, critical thinking, and more.

Another, perhaps better way to look at this is to instead consider how we can best help our children use screens in a healthy way.  (IE, instead of focusing on limits, focus on healthy balance.)  A few tips:

  • Role model healthy screen use (worth repeating)
  • Create screen-free times and places, eg: dinner time, an hour before bed, driving, bedrooms, etc.
  • Offer to watch some shows together, or play games together
  • Prioritize (or encourage the prioritization of) screen use that is age-appropriate and fosters creativity, connection, or problem-solving.
  • Offer & support opportunities for your child to be creative, learning, connected, or joyful doing activities that have nothing to do with screens.

So, to sum it all up: the younger they are, the less they should have.  Focus on creating fun and inviting family activities that can compete (and win!) against the screen.  Use a perspective and language that identifies health and balance as a motivator for limiting screens.  And remember, the older our kids are are, the more we need to relinquish control and focus instead of helping them identify, recover, and learn from mistakes, so that they can grow in to adults who can manage these temptations successfully on their own.


(*) No, I did not say ALL the control. And, I’m talking about control over their lives, not yours!


A couple of good resources: 

American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for screen use 5-18

AAP tool to make a media plan for your family

Some interesting recent studies:

A recent study of 1100 American college students found a negative relationship between current grades and previous screen time rules, particularly when parents had said those limits were for homework reasons.  ie–the most controlling parents did not have kids with higher GPAs in college.  (Gotta let them develop their own screen management skills!)

Increased cell phone use associated with lower GPA, higher anxiety, lower life satisfaction

Another about phones & anxiety

Screen use before bed is associated with less sleep & delayed falling asleep

Higher cell phone use associated with lower physical fitness