Screen Time and Kids: 9 Things Parents Should Know

  • family using digital technologies in living room with tv, ipad, computer and headphones
    Screens are part of modern life—for adults and kids.
    It’s impossible to avoid screens in modern life. TVs hang in most family restaurants. Our smartphones are never far from our hands, and digital tablets and computers are as integral to today’s classrooms as chalkboards once were. Dueling headlines—some claiming that screens harm our kids’ physical and emotional health; others extolling the life-changing potential of digital devices—aren’t much help to busy parents trying to navigate a screen-filled world. Get the facts about screen time recommendations and limits, as well as what the research says about the pros and cons of screen time.

  • 2-year old looking at digital tablet in the dark in bed
    1. The World Health Organization has issued screen time guidelines.
    In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that “sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended” for children under the age of 2. They advised that children ages 2 to 4 should use screens no more than 1 hour per day. These recommendations echo those of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which further states that 5-year-olds shouldn’t use screens more than 1 hour per day. The AAP also says children ages 6 and older need “consistent limits on the time spent using media.”

  • Teenage boy looking at smartphone while sitting on bed in his room
    2. All screen time is not the same.
    Watching a TV show is very different from playing a video game. Most TV shows are passive experiences, while video games require input from the user, who must adapt to in-game conditions. Scrolling through Snapchat is very different from shooting, editing and uploading videos, yet both activities are classified as “screen time.” Some experts say it’s not particularly helpful to lump all screen time together, as interactive and creative screen-based activities likely affect the brain differently than passive consumption of media.

  • teenage girl playing virtual reality game
    3. Technology moves faster than research.
    It takes a long time to design, execute and report a carefully constructed research study. And when you’re talking about the effect of a new technology on the brain and development, ideally, you’ll want to track children over a period of time. However, technology moves so quickly that by the time research studies reach the headlines, the technology we’re using—and the ways we’re using it —is no longer the same as what was studied. Don’t fret about every fear-mongering headline you see. We still have a lot to learn about the interaction between humans and screens.

  • grandfather smiling at table with son and grandson
    4. Children require in-person interaction to thrive.
    Both WHO and the AAP issued screen time guidelines because they were concerned that children might be spending time on screens instead of in other activities. Pediatricians and educators have long known that children require lots of physical activity, sleep and in-person interaction to thrive. Children learn language through conversation with caregivers; on-screen language doesn’t appear to facilitate development in the same way. In fact, one study found that an increase of 30 minutes per day of screen time was associated with an increased risk of speech delay at 18 months of age.

  • teenager watching video on smartphone for evening relaxation in bed
    5. Screen usage can disrupt sleep.
    Adequate sleep is essential for human health. Children who don’t get enough sleep don’t do as well in school and may have difficulty interacting with peers. Chronic lack of sleep can even mimic ADHD. According to the AAP, the blue light emitted from screens can affect melatonin levels, which may make falling asleep more difficult. Many children (and adults!) also have a hard time settling down to sleep after playing a video game, watching a video, or chatting online. Healthcare providers recommend powering down screens at least one hour before bed. Ideally, screens should be kept outside the bedroom.

  • young teenage boy playing games on his computer in his bedroom
    6. Video game “addiction” is controversial.
    In 2018, WHO officially added 'gaming disorder' to the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases. The description of gaming disorder sounds like what most people describe as addiction: impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. However, many psychologists believe it’s premature to classify obsessive gaming as a disorder. They argue obsessive gaming may be a symptom of other psychological problems.

  • playful teenagers with camera phone laughing
    7. Social media may be harmful to mental health.
    A slew of headlines has suggested that overuse of screens can harm mental health. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine found that youth who spend 7 hours or more a day on screens are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety than young people who use screens for an hour a day. That study didn’t differentiate between different types of screen time. One that did reported symptoms of depression were more common in teens who spend most of their screen time on social media.

  • teen and social media
    8. Kids use screens to learn and socialize.
    For many children and teens, screens are a tool. They learn new skills from YouTube videos. Friends congregate in online spaces after school. They socialize—and solve problems together—as they play Fortnite and other popular video games. Screens help kids stay in touch with far-away family members and friends, and allow children to connect with others who share their interests. Being able to connect with people who share similar interests and challenges can be particularly beneficial to children who feel ostracized in their home communities. LGBTQ teens and chronically ill youth often find support online.

  • smiling grandfather and grandson using digital tablet
    9. Mentorship is more important than limits.
    Screens aren’t likely to disappear in the future. Strict screen time limits may ease family conflict and ensure your children have time for other activities, but they don’t help children learn how to responsibly use screens or self-regulate. That’s why Jordan Shapiro, author of “The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World,” argues, “The answer is not more limits and restrictions; it’s more mentorship and guidance.” Focus your efforts on teaching your children to be good digital citizens. Teach them how to evaluate information and safely interact with others, and model healthy behavior yourself.

Screen Time & Kids: 9 Things Parents Should Know | Screen Time Guidelines

About The Author

Jennifer L.W. Fink, RN, BSN is a Registered Nurse-turned-writer. She’s also the creator of and co-creator/co-host of the podcast On Boys: Real Talk about Parenting, Teaching & Reaching Tomorrow’s Men.
  1. Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2016;138(5):e20162592.
  2. To Grow Up Healthy, Children Need to Sit Less and Play More. World Health Organization.
  3. van den Heuvel M, Ma J, Borkhoff C, et al. Mobile Media Device Use is Associated with Expressive Language Delay in 18-Month-Old Children. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2019;40(2):99-104.
  4. Madigan S, Browne D, Racine N, et al. Association Between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test. JAMA Pediatrics, 2019;173(3):244.
  5. Children’s Screen Time Guidelines Too Restrictive, According to New Research. University of Oxford.
  6. Twenge J, Campbell W. Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Prev Med Rep. 2018;12:271-283.
  7. Gaming Disorder. World Health Organization.
  8. Here’s Why Experts are Skeptical of the “Gaming Disorder” Diagnosis. The Verge.
  9. Psychologists Criticize WHO Decision to Recognize “Gaming Disorder.” Inverse.
  10. Boers E, Afzali M, Newton N, Conrod P. Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence. JAMA Pediatrics. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019:1759. [Epub ahead of print]
  11. Children Need Digital Mentorship, Not WHO’s Restrictions on Screen Time. Brookings Institute.

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jul 26
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
Explore Children's Health
Recommended Reading
  • Figuring out exactly what irritates your little one’s skin can be a  challenging process, but it helps to know where to start.
    May 6, 2019
  • From baby fevers to hives and breathing problems, get insight on the difference between every day woes and more serious symptoms in children you should never ignore.

    July 11, 2017
  • Kids fall down, bump into things, and pick up germs everywhere they go. Most of the time they turn out just fine, but as a parent, it's tough to know when it's time to head to the ER and when home care is enough. Trust your gut if something feels really wrong with your child. In case of emergency, do the best you can to keep your child relaxed and comfortable, and whenever possible, go to a children's emergency department with equipment sized for kids and doctors trained in pediatric medicine. In emergency rooms of all kinds, these are some of the most common reasons parents bring in their children for immediate care.
    October 18, 2016
Get On-Demand Care