Jul 24, 2017, 2:03:45 PM CDT Dec 13, 2023, 4:45:03 PM CST

How and why you should limit screen time for kids

Learn how limiting screen time can support your child’s health and development

Little girl at home playing game on tablet Little girl at home playing game on tablet

In today's world, we spend hours looking at screens – whether it be on computers, TVs, tablets or smartphones. But too much screen time may not be healthy for a growing child's brain.

Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and the Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children's Health℠, explains the effects of too much screen time, recommended screen time by age and strategies to limit screen time for kids.

How much screen time is too much?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following screen time guidelines for children:

  • Children under 2: Avoid all screen time for children younger than 18-24 months old, except for video-chatting or time co-playing with parents on apps after 6 months of age.
  • Children ages 2-5: Children ages 2 to 5 years should have no more than one hour of screen time of high-quality, educational content per day.
  • Children ages 6 and older: Establish personal screen time limits that ensure that media does not interfere with sleep, exercise or other healthy behaviors.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) published their own guidelines, recommending that children under 2 years of age should not be exposed to any electronic screens, and that children ages 2-4 should have no more than one hour of sedentary screen time, with less being better.

What are the risks of too much screen time?

Too much screen time can affect a child's health, development and learning.

"Children's brains are not designed to grow and develop from screens," Dr. Holland explains. "The brain is designed to develop from human interaction and exploration of the natural environment."

Dr. Holland cautions that too much screen time can affect children in various ways, such as:

  • Hindering language, cognitive and social development: When children play video games or watch TV, they're not building their thinking skills through reading, practicing artistic abilities or problem-solving in the natural environment. Screen-based entertainment can interfere with verbal and nonverbal social skills which develop from talking and interacting with other children and adults.
  • Negatively affecting the development of attention span: The flashing colors, lights and sounds of screens capture children's attention, with very little cognitive effort required. If children have access to a screen whenever they want, they will miss important opportunities to practice regulating emotions and sustaining attention and focus.
  • Squashing the creativity that can result from boredom: "If children are never bored, they'll miss opportunities to use their creativity to solve problems," says Dr. Holland. "Those opportunities can help children develop a greater sense of self-sufficiency – realizing that they are capable of solving their own problems by coming up with ways to entertain themselves, rather than always relying on a parent."

Additionally, when children have access to screens, they may have access to content that is not appropriate for their age level, such as violent games or unsafe apps. It's important for parents to be aware of content being accessed by their children and to discuss internet safety guidelines.

Physical effects of too much screen time

Screen time can also affect a child's physical health by disrupting sleep habits or increasing risk for obesity. While enjoying screen time, some kids:

  • Don't drink enough water.
  • Eat convenient, less nutritious snacks because they don't want to leave their screens.
  • Engage in less physical activity and have a more sedentary lifestyle.
  • Neglect typical routines, such as going to bed on time, showering and teeth-brushing.

Parents may be surprised to learn that too much screen time can play a role in gastrointestinal (GI) issues, such as abdominal pain, constipation or cramps. This may happen in part because children can become so involved in screen time that other factors take a toll on their digestive and physical health, such as ignoring their body's natural cues and delaying trips to the bathroom.

Tips to limit screen time

Dr. Holland shared a few tips that can help families limit screen time for their children.

1. Model healthy behaviors

"The first strategy is the toughest," says Dr. Holland. "Parents need to be a good model for behavior. If your child sees you modeling non-screen activities like reading or sports, they will be more likely to want to do those things, too."

2. Delay introducing screens

Dr. Holland says it is also important to realize that you can't prevent children from using screens, but you can delay it by not giving screens to very young children.

"Keep screens out of the picture for as long as you can, even if only because it's easier not to introduce screens than to take them away once a child knows what they are," says Dr. Holland.

3. Create clear rules and stick to them

Explain screen time rules in words your child can understand. As with any parenting rules, it's important to be consistent. Dr. Holland says parents should be confident in asserting limits on screen time and ensure that other adults (e.g., grandparents, babysitters) enforce those same rules when caring for your child.

4. Provide fun alternatives to screens

Some ideas include:

  • Play outside: Playing games in the backyard or local park can be a great alternative to screen time. Consider activities like sidewalk chalk or bubbles, and games like hide-and-seek or hopscotch to get your child outside.
  • Indoor exercise: Allow kids to use hula-hoops or jump ropes (if your floor can take it). You could also supply soft balls for tossing and pillows for building "forts." Look for more ideas for indoor and at-home exercises for kids.
  • Toys: Keep a few toys hidden away and introduce a "new" toy when you need your child to play independently. The novelty can help capture their interest.
  • Books. Try simple coloring books with crayons or washable markers. Picture books with basic sentences describing the pictures, such as those by Dr. Seuss, can be particularly helpful in developing early reading skills.
  • Explore new hobbies that don't involve screens: Consider arts and crafts, puzzles and opportunities to learn a new skill, such as gardening or photography. Invite children to participate in cooking meals for the family, assigning them tasks and providing supervision according to their developmental abilities.

5. Remember that screens are a privilege for children, not a right

Require your child to help with household chores, help with siblings or spend time outdoors before using a screen each day. Creating a daily schedule and task list can help define expectations.

It may be particularly effective to explain screen time to children as a privilege that can be earned through certain positive behaviors (e.g., doing chores, not fighting with siblings), instead of taking away screens for negative behaviors.

6. Let children be bored now and then

Dr. Holland says that children need to experience boredom to help develop attention.

"When screens are used as a strategy to keep children occupied, the child is not using brain functions to self-regulate and deal with boredom," Dr. Holland says. "If those brain functions aren't strong because they haven't been exercised the way the brain needs, it can be a problem later in life."

Whether they're sitting in a classroom learning or eating at a restaurant, children need to be able to focus on things that may not be as interesting as a smartphone game.

"Remember, it's not your job as a parent to provide constant entertainment for your child," Dr. Holland says. "In fact, this can be detrimental to their development."

Too much screen time may not be healthy for a growing child's brain. Check out screen time guidelines from @Childrens.

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