Balancing Quality Time and Screen Time for Kids

Modern parents of school-age kids can’t help but be concerned about screen time. How much is too much in this digital era? Do kids of different ages require different screen-time limitations?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), today’s children grow up immersed in digital media, with both positive and negative effects. In 2018, the organization released its official recommendations regarding media use.

The AAP also offers an interactive family media use planner to help families create a healthy balance between digital and real life.

The AAP recommends the following:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose programming designed for children’s developmental stages that has educational merit, and should watch it with their children to interact during the viewing and take advantage of learning opportunities.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of age-appropriate programming. Parents should view all media with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing, so kids can apply this knowledge to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using all forms of media, and make sure media time does not replace adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinnertime or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

New research supports setting consistent limits on media usage. An October 2018 study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that cutting back kids’ screen time to two hours or less per day, along with 9 to 11 hours of sleep each night, and a minimum of one hour of exercise each day, is linked to improvements in cognition in children. The 10-year study monitored 4,524 American children ages 8 to 11 years, with a focus on physical activity levels, recreational screen time, and sleep duration.

This research suggests that kids who limited screen time or simply got enough sleep had the strongest links to better cognition, while kids who did both and exercised daily, too, demonstrated the most impressive brainpower.

Even so, researchers found that only 1 in 20 similarly-aged children in the U.S. met all three guidelines.

What about adolescents? Should their media use be limited to 2 hours per day, too?

A recent clinical report, published by the Council on Communications and Media and shared by the AAP, shows a dramatic increase in smart phone usage, social media engagement, streaming TV/videos, interactive “apps,” and video gaming among adolescents and “tweens” over the past decade.

Obesity is a major health risk among this group, especially in teenagers whose daily media usage measures at 5 or more hours, compared with teens whose sedentary screen time clocks in at 2 hours or less per day.

Evidence also suggests teens engaged in heavy media use have more trouble sleeping and experience a decreased interest in “real” relationships offline.