How much screen time is OK for my kid(s)?

Kids are spending more time with screen media -- and at younger ages -- than ever before. In an effort to help families curb kids' use, groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have released numerical guidelines to limit screen time, but the reality is there's no magic number that's "just right." What's more important is the quality of kids' media, how it fits into your family's lifestyle, and how your kids engage with it.

The idea of screen time as a one-dimensional activity is changing. Even the AAP, whose screen-time rules had been strictly age-based, recognizes that not all screen time is created equal. Computers, tablets, and smartphones are multipurpose devices that can be used for lots of purposes. Other the other hand, WHO is sticking with specific amounts of screen time on the theory that sedentary activities, such as playing computer games, contribute to the global obesity epidemic. However, simply calling all device use "screen time" can miss some important distinctions. Common Sense Research studies identify four main categories of screen time:

  • Passive consumption: watching videos or shows, reading, and listening to music
  • Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the internet
  • Communication: video-chatting and using social media
  • ​Content creation: making digital art or music

Clearly, there are a lot of differences between these activities. But as valuable as many of them can be, it's still important for kids' overall healthy development to balance their lives with enriching experiences off screens. These tips can help:

  • Pay attention to how your kids act during and after watching TV, playing video games, or hanging out online. There's no need to worry if they're using high-quality and age-appropriate media, if their behavior is positive, and if their screen time is balanced with plenty of healthy screen-free activities.
  • If you're concerned about heavy media use, consider creating a schedule that works for your family. This can include weekly screen-time limits, restrictions on the kinds of screens kids can use, and guidelines on the types of activities they can do or programs they can watch. Make sure to get your kids' input so the plan teaches media literacy and self-regulation, and use this as an opportunity to discover what they like watching, introduce new shows and apps for them to try, or schedule a family movie night.

The AAP 's guidelines, released in October 2016, allow some screen time for children younger than 2 and emphasize parental involvement for all kids. In a nutshell:

  • Avoid using screen media for anything other than video-chatting for children younger than 18 months.
  • Find high-quality programming for children 18 to 24 months (if you choose to introduce media), and watch or play together.
  • Limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs for children age 2 to 5 years.
  • Create a family media plan with consistent rules, and enforce them for older kids.

The reality is that most families will go through periods of heavy and light media use, but so long as there's a balance, kids should be just fine.