How Much Is Too Much Screen Time for Children?

Health experts say children spend an excessive amount of time on screens, and the pandemic has made the situation even more harmful to their physical and mental wellbeing. Too much recreational screen time can interfere with getting enough exercise, doing homework, and being with family and friends. It also can contribute to obesity, depression, and decreased physical and cognitive abilities.

In a recent Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study published in JAMA Pediatrics, University of San Francisco-led researchers found that 12- to 13-year-old children in the U.S. doubled their non-school-related screen time to 7.7 hours per day in May 2020, compared to 3.8 hours per day before the pandemic.

Screen time amounts were self-reported by 4,412 adolescents taking part in the study, which determined that the most common recreational activities among children were watching or streaming movies, videos and television, followed by gaming. Overall, the research indicates that as screen time increases, an adolescent’s stress increases and coping ability decreases. Screen time also lends itself to less physical activity and more sedentary time, which is associated with weight gain and binge eating.

What can parents do to help set healthier boundaries? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents of kids and teens place consistent limits on media use. Screen time should not replace time needed for sleeping, eating, being active, studying, and interacting with family and friends. Here are a few screen tips, courtesy of the AAP.

  • Address what type of and how much media are used and what media behaviors are appropriate for each child or teenager, and for parents. Place consistent limits on hours per day of media use as well as types of media used.

  • Ensure that children and adolescents get the recommended amount of daily physical activity (one hour) and adequate sleep (8–12 hours, depending on age).

  • Recommend that children not sleep with devices in their bedrooms, including TVs, computers and smartphones. Avoid exposure to devices or screens for one hour before bedtime.

  • Discourage entertainment media while doing homework.

  • Designate media-free times together (i.e., family dinner) and media-free locations (i.e., bedrooms) in homes. Promote activities that are likely to facilitate development and health, including positive parenting activities such as reading, teaching, talking and playing together.

  • Communicate guidelines to other caregivers, such as babysitters or grandparents, so that media rules are followed consistently.

  • Engage in selecting and co-viewing media with your child, through which your child can use media to learn and be creative, and share these experiences with your family and your community.

  • Have ongoing communication with children about online responsibility and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline, avoiding cyberbullying and sexting, being wary of online solicitation, and avoiding communications that can compromise personal privacy and safety.

  • Actively develop a network of trusted adults (i.e., aunts, uncles, coaches, etc.) who can engage with children through social media and to whom children can turn when they encounter challenges.

To access a tool to create a personalized family media use plan that is aligned with your family’s goals and values, click here. It may also be helpful to talk with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about managing your child’s screen use.

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