Managing Your Child’s Screen Time

a dark-skinned person looks at a phone in front of a laptop screen

Screens today are an integral part of our children’s lives, offering entertainment, education, and connection. Many children get computers in kindergarten. Lots of parents choose to get cell phones for elementary-age children to monitor location and safety. Kids today are “digital natives,” meaning they are born into a time of technology. Screens are all around us and it’s hard to know how much screen time is too much and how it can impact our children. Let’s explore the impacts of screens on children’s development and review some practical guidelines for fostering healthy technology use at home. 

Impacts of Screen Time

Excessive screen time can influence children’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Research indicates that prolonged exposure to screens, especially for activities like gaming and social media, can impact 5 main areas:

  • Physical Health: Sedentary behavior associated with excessive screen time can lead to health issues like obesity, poor posture, and disrupted sleep patterns. This can include problems falling asleep, staying asleep, poor quality of sleep, and getting enough sleep. In addition, children may experience eyestrain and headaches from staring at screens for extended periods. 
  • Social and Emotional Development: Screen time can also impact children’s social skills and emotional regulation. It may reduce face-to-face interactions with other people, and other children in particular. Social interactions are crucial for developing empathy, strengthening communication skills, learning social cues, and creating friendships.
  • Mental Health: High amounts of screen time can harm a child’s mental health. Research has shown that increased screen time can lead to mood issues, depression, and anxiety. In particular, computer use and video gaming are correlated with the most significant symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Cognitive Development: Overuse of screens, particularly in younger children, has been linked to delays in language development, attention issues, and difficulties in focusing on tasks that require sustained attention. This can also lead to poor academic performance at school. 
  • Behavior: For children who spend more time on screens, we can see more behavioral concerns, like increased physical aggression towards others, tantrums, and lower frustration tolerance. 

Guidelines for Technology Use

While screens can offer valuable learning opportunities and entertainment, it’s important to establish boundaries and promote balanced screen time habits. Parents and caregivers may consider these guidelines for children’s healthy technology use:

1. Set Limits

Establish daily or weekly limits on screen time based on your child’s age and developmental stage. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Until 18 months of age: Limit screen time to video chatting with loved ones (for example, if a parent is out of town)
  • Between 18 and 24 months: Consider limiting screen time to watching educational programs with a caregiver
  • Ages 2 to 5 years: Limit non-educational screen time to 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on weekends
  • For ages 6 and older: Encourage consistent and healthy limits on screen time, ensuring it does not interfere with sleep, physical activity, and other healthy behaviors

2. Create Screen Free Zones and Times

Designate specific areas in your home, such as bedrooms and dining areas, where screens are not used. This helps encourage other activities like reading, playing outside, or engaging in creative outlets. Additionally, creating screen-free zones can help promote healthier eating and sleep habits. Consider turning off screens at least 1 hour before bedtime to promote quality sleep. If your child is struggling with sleep, check out my blog post on Helping Your Child Get a Better Night’s Sleep.

3. Encourage a Variety of Activities

Offer a variety of activities beyond screen time, including sports, hobbies and activities, and in-person time with family and friends. Balancing screen time with other engaging activities supports development and well-being.

4. Model Healthy Tech Use

Children learn by observing adults, so it’s important for parents to model healthy technology use. Limit your own screen time, especially during family meals and quality time together, to demonstrate the importance of balanced habits.

5. Monitor Content

An adult and child look at a tablet screen together in a tent

Be mindful of the content your child is accessing online. Use parental controls and age-appropriate filters to ensure they are engaging with safe and educational content. Talk with them about what they are doing or watching online. Discuss online safety with your child as they grow older.

6. Encourage Screen Time as a Tool

Emphasize using screens as a tool for learning and creativity. Encourage your child to explore educational apps, participate in virtual learning experiences, and engage in games that foster critical thinking and problem-solving.

In Summary

Screen time can be a valuable part of children’s lives when used thoughtfully and in moderation. It can promote education and learning, connection with friends and family, and of course, be entertaining. By understanding the potential impact of excessive screen time on children’s development and implementing guidelines for healthy technology use, we can support our children’s overall well-being and instill positive habits that will benefit them throughout their lives. Remember that each child and developmental stage is unique. For more help navigating screen time and tailoring it to your child and family, I recommend talking with your child’s pediatrician, teacher, or a mental health professional. 

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