How Much Digital Screen Time Is Too Much for Kids?

As you ponder an answer for your family, here's what professionals and other parents are saying.

By Jacqueline Emigh

Kids spend huge amounts of time with their smartphones, iPads, laptops, TVs, e-readers, and other digital devices. However, some studies warn that too much screen time can be harmful. Your children need to use computers to do their schoolwork, and they want to use phones to keep up with friends. But how much screen time is too much? As you try to answer that question for your own family, here are five points to consider, based on what child experts and other parents are saying.

1. The Good and the Bad Go Hand in Hand

Research studies are finding connections between excessive screen time and such problems as cell phone addiction, developmental delays, sleep disturbances, and obesity. Meanwhile, prestigious organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are identifying both risks and benefits of kids' use of digital technology.

Experts cite the need to balance a kid's digital activities with involvement in the real world. "Ultimately, there is no single answer to safe dosage," said Dave H. Crusoe, senior director for digital youth engagement at Boys & Girls Clubs of America. "Engagement with all digital media must be balanced with life activities that promote learning, healthy social engagement, and personal growth and development," he told Techwalla.

On the down side, some studies suggest that too much screen time can stunt cognitive development by interfering with human-to-human "face time." This research supports the theory that kids need to spend time offline with their parents and other kids to develop empathy and the ability to understand nonverbal cues—such as facial expressions and tones of voice—that are important in human interaction.

Beyond that, kids can become addicted to cell phones and other digital devices if they rely too heavily on the instant gratification and constant stimulation that these devices supply.

The reliability of certain individual studies and their applicability to young people are not always obvious. For example, some of the research on addiction used mice, not human children, as subjects. Still, the evidence that letting kids overdo it with screen time can have deleterious effects on their development is strong enough to be unsettling.

"The addictive nature of technology is now well documented," said Stephan Roussan, president of the ICVM Group web design firm and father of a seven-year-old son. "Even fully formed adults who came to current technologies later in life are proving susceptible to developing computer and device addiction behaviors that are very hard to break," he told Techwalla.

Many parents also worry that phones and computers may distract their kids from earning good grades in school.

On a positive note, the AAP has found things to like about social media, interactive media, and even traditional media such as TV.

"Both traditional and social media can provide exposure to new ideas and information, raising awareness of current events and issues. Interactive media also can provide opportunities for the promotion of community participation and civic engagement. Students can collaborate with others on assignments and projects on many online media platforms. The use of social media helps families and friends who are separated geographically communicate across the miles," a recent policy statement from the organization announced.

2. Not All Activities Are Alike

Experts say that different types of digital activities should be treated differently. For example, in another recent policy statement, the AAP rescinded its long-time recommendation not to give any screen time to children under two.

Now the organization says it's okay for kids between the ages of 0 and 18 months to engage in video chat, and it's even okay for an 18- to 24-month-old toddlers to view television, if they "co-watch" educational shows with adults who can help interpret what's going on in the TV program.

Distinctions between types of activities should apply to your older kids, too, according to Boys & Girls Clubs of America's Crusoe. "Screen time by way of producing a skateboard video, writing a blog or fan fiction, or recording and editing beats is far different than screen time that primarily consists of passive viewing (e.g. watching television programming)," he told Techwalla. "The key is that some activities promote personal development and growth, while others result in stagnation."

3. Kids Need At Least Some Tech

American kids spend an average of seven hours a day in front of electronic screens, according to estimates reported by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Many parents and professionals believe that, although children do need to use digital devices at times, these activities shouldn't eat up vast amounts of free time.

"Kids can learn a lot of different things on the computer, and [they] need to use it for school work. But it is important for kids to be with other kids and to spend time with the family, too," said Dr. Tim Lynch, president and founder of PsychSoftPC, a maker of high-end computers.

But Lynch thinks that phones and computers can actually promote socialization. While TV is a passive medium, he said, phones and computers are active. "Even playing games or communicating with friends through a computer or smart phone is going to have a [positive] effect on kids' socialization because [this] is an active not a passive medium," Lynch told Techwalla.

Stephan Roussan of the ICVM Group acknowledged that valid reasons exist for his son to use the iPad or computer at times: "iPad or computer use is not for random entertainment. There must be a valid reason for turning it on, such as looking up a specific topic ([for example], how to make a certain origami figure or paper airplane, or how to play a certain song on the piano) or using a certain program as a tool for a project ([such as] making a movie, animation, or book). If there isn't a specific purpose, it doesn't get turned on."

Technology is not the whole world, Roussan insisted. "We are trying to raise our son to understand that technology is just a tool—something to assist in the accomplishment of a task or idea, just as you would use a hammer to bang in a nail, or a can opener to open a can. It is not a world in and of itself. The real world exists only when one lifts their eyes away from the screen."

4. Each Family Is Different

Parents have devised countless strategies to counteract possible negative effects of digital technology. Your might have set up rules for your kids, too. Do you place strict time limits on the use of phones, tablets, computers, TV, and other devices—whether the limit is 30 minutes, say, or two hours? Some parents do.

Tim Kasser and his wife instituted a 30-minute daily limit on screen time when their two sons were about two years old. When the boys were in elementary school, the parents raised that limit to 45 minutes; and when the kids reached their mid-teens, the parents dropped the restrictions altogether, to give the boys time to practice limiting their own use of tech before heading off to college. This approach worked, wrote Kasser, a board member at Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, in a blog post.

"These last three years have gone pretty smoothly. Maybe my sons use screens more than I wish, but they are clearly not addicted to video games or their cell phones. They also clearly have other interests that don’t involve screens, including reading, games, and music," Kasser reported.

Do you make certain online activities (such as social media) or specific websites off-limits to your kids? Recognizing that children can be "ostracized" at school for carrying regular cell phones, one dad told Techwalla that kids should be allowed to own smartphones, but only with the understanding that parents may take away the phones if kids use them to visit social media sites.

Some parents permit their kids to use their phones, tablets, or Kindles only after they have accomplished real-world tasks such as eating dinner, doing the dishes, and finishing homework.

Daniel Nyiri and his wife agree on requiring their kids to read real-world books before using the computer. "So if they read books (not on computer) for two hours they can use the computer for two hours as well. It's x for x," Nyiri wrote to Techwalla.

5. Each Kid Is Different

For a socially and athletically active kid, several hours of TV might be okay now and then, Crusoe said. "Heavy screen time, including heavy passive screen time, might not be incredibly detrimental if balanced by, say, active participation in sports or other social activities. Take, for instance, a youth rugby player who, on the weekend and after completing school homework, watches several hours' worth of television. This dosage profile will lead to a vastly different life outcome than, say, a youth who watches television for five hours, continuously, for weeks on end."

Age matters, too. Your child should be subject to different limits at widely different ages, such as three, eight, and seventeen,. In keeping with this notion, the AAP has issued separate guidelines for two- to five-year-olds and for six- to eighteen-year-olds.

Even with an adult present, two- to five-year-olds should cowatch no more than one hour of "high quality" TV programming daily, according to the organization. For kids six and up, the guidelines are much more flexible, but a family's rules should always involve both time limits and restrictions on certain categories of media, according to the group.

The AAP also advises families to schedule media-free time together (such as at meals), and media-free locations in the home (such as kids' bedrooms). The AAP has recently released a "Family Media Use Tool" that you can use—in consultation with your pediatrician—to create rules that make sense for your own kids.