Screen Time for Kids: Practical, Healthy Guidelines

This is Part 2 of our post on children and screen time. Part 1 dealt with the impact of screen time on your child’s brain and sensory development. This part gives a practical approach to developing and moderating your child’s screen time habits in a way that’s healthy for them, for you and for your entire family.

You’re sitting in an airplane seat, waiting for takeoff and listening with half an ear to the video with the safety instructions.

Then you hear the line:

“If the cabin loses pressure, oxygen masks will drop automatically. …Make sure to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your children or others.”

Why does that line always strike us as counter intuitive? Because our gut reaction is to take care of our children before we take care of ourselves.

Why does every airline need to put the line there? Because it’s critical to take care of ourselves before we take care of our children.

If we don’t, there won’t be anyone available to take care of our children. In either the short run (an airplane) or the long run (most other areas of life), our children will suffer.

What on earth does this have to do with screen time?

Yes, this post is supposed to deal with practical strategies for helping our children reduce screen time to healthy levels. Yes, it will do that.

But we felt that we needed to start with the principle of all principles: the thing that will matter the most to your child’s healthy development in the long run is that his parent (you!) is a healthy, functioning human being.

Any principle, rule or suggestion contained within the article needs to be considered through the filter of your life and current reality.

If (for example), we recommend not having screen time in the morning before your child goes to school, but in your life right now, your child will otherwise wake you up 45 minutes before your alarm goes off, and you will be a miserable wreck all morning and all day – then letting your child have screen time in the morning so you can sleep IS the best decision you can make right now.

screen time for kids guidelines so you are not an exhausted mom

Will there be consequences to the screen time before school? There probably will be. Just like your child might be gasping for air for a few moments while you put on your oxygen mask. But whatever the consequences, there will be worse consequences for your child’s and your family’s overall well being if you don’t give yourself what you need to function.

So principle of principles #1 – your being able to manage life in a healthy manner is the thing that matters most, long-term, to your child’s healthy development. So if you need to deviate from a rule or recommendation in this article in order to preserve your health or sanity – DO IT!

But here comes principles of principles #2, which we need to balance out the above statement.

The balancing act of parenting

Parenting is a constant balance. We’re not talking about juggling the million-and-one things we need to do to keep a family going (although there’s that too) – we’re talking about balancing your needs with the needs of your children and family.

Principle #1 above was about the supreme importance of giving yourself what you need for healthy functioning – because otherwise you cannot provide your children with their needs.

But – it’s critical to be honest with ourselves as to what is a need where we cannot “stretch ourselves” beyond it, and what is an opportunity to stretch ourselves as a person.

For example, I’m trying to make dinner, and my four year old and eight year old are getting on each other’s nerves.

“Mommy – I’m trying to read a book and he’s too close to me! Tell him!” “I want to see.” “But I’m reading the book – you can’t read yet!” “I can be here too!” “Go a-WAY!” “No!” “Mommy – he hit me!” “Stop!” “MOMMY!”

Are these goats… or kids?

I really don’t want to have to deal with it. In fact, I really, really don’t want to have to deal with it. I’ve had a long day at work. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I just want them to be quiet so that I can finish dinner, serve it, and get everyone to bed.

So here’s the key question – and one that demands a lot of honesty from me – is it that I can’t deal with it right now? Or that I really, really don’t want to deal with it?

If my day and life are such that I cannot deal with it or I will be endangering my ability to be a healthy, functioning mother for the rest of the evening, then I should probably send one – or both – of them to watch TV. That would be a healthy, wise decision here.

But if I could stretch myself to put the knife down on the chopping board, take seven minutes away from dinner prep, help them to talk out the issue, problem solve and/or find a constructive activity to do together – I’ll be teaching my kids life skills and strengthening my relationship with them and with each other.

It’s going to be hard.

Of course it’s going to be hard and not what you wanted to be doing had someone offered you a choice. “Hey – you’re tired and hungry: would you rather chop a few veggies – or mediate between two whining kids… and then chop the veggies?”

But good parenting is a challenge. Good performance at anything is a challenge – from sports to music to business. If it’s challenging, and you can stretch yourself to try anyway… that’s where the most meaningful accomplishment happens.

It’s the secret of staying in the “Learning Zone” (where you’re stretching yourself), but keeping out of the Comfort Zone (where it’s easy to handle) and not pushing yourself into the Panic Zone (where it’s far beyond your current level of ability).

Panic Zone Learning Zone Comfort Zone diagram

If you lift weights way beyond what you can handle, you’re going to end up flat on your back in bed with a herniated disc. But if you stay with the weights that don’t leave you breaking a sweat, your muscles will never develop.

Someone who really want to grow in their strength training will embrace those weights that leave them panting and sweating and feeling that this is “almost” beyond their ability… but still possible.

A challenging balance? For sure. Worth it? Absolutely.

You’ll see the rewards – in your relationship with your children, and in your development, confidence and abilities as a parent.

Why guilt has (almost) no place here

If you keep principle #1 (make sure you’re giving yourself what you need) and principle #2 (good parenting is supposed to be a challenging, stretching experience) at the forefront of your awareness, you’ll have a much better chance of integrating all the following practical screen time advice into your life in a healthy way.

For different people the right decision will be different. Which is why judging someone else is almost always misguided.


Feeling guilty because of other people’s judgments of YOU is misplaced guilt – provided you really evaluated the situation in light of Principle #1 and #2 and truly feel this was the right decision for you and your family.

For you on different days the right decision may be different. And as you grow as a parent and a person, keeping yourself within the Learning Zone as it changes its boundaries, the right decision will certainly be different. Because you will be a different person.

With that, let’s start the practical advice you’ve been waiting for. We divided it by ages, because the effects of screen time do vary with age. More significantly, though, your control over your child and their environment varies with age – so what is relevant for younger children may not be relevant for older children.

Ready? Let’s go…

Birth and beyond: parents and screen time

Before we speak about “how to handle our children’s screen time,” let’s talk about how to handle our own. Why?

Because you are the role model for your children when it comes to living life. That includes the aspect of life known as “using screens.”

Technology is a tool. Screens are tools. They are tools that one needs in today’s world, but there needs to be a learning process if you don’t want the child to get hurt in the interim.

If a child hundreds of years ago was growing up in the home of a blacksmith (and one day would be a blacksmith himself), he would grow up learning little by little about the tools of the trade and how to use them wisely. Blacksmiths didn’t give their little two year old a hand hammer. They might have given their seven year old one, if they could teach him how to use it safely and effectively, but they didn’t hand him a sledgehammer until he was significantly older.

If somehow you were so inspired by Part 1 of this article that you wanted to cut screens out of your family’s life entirely, we’re here to tell you: don’t do that in haste.

In today’s world, if you declare your family a screen-free family, the most likely scenario is that of the child who grows up in the treat-free home and sneaks treats in the neighbor’s home.

(That’s not to say there aren’t families who live successfully and happily screen-free – and reap many benefits from it. But in order for it to work, you need to be 100% committed, and dedicated to putting in the requisite planning and effort. Even when you’re successful, there are challenges that you and your children will face in interacting and integrating into the outside “screened” world.)

Additionally, you want to make yourself a clear role model and go-to source of information on how to use the tools of technology.

Otherwise, your children will look elsewhere for guidance on the best way to use screens and screen media… and it may not be in the places you approve of.

At the same time, the position of role model and teacher carries a lot of responsibility as to our own personal conduct.

If the blacksmith does a great job instructing his protege on the rules of forge safety, but then pays no attention to those rules when he works in the forge himself, the protege will not be keeping those rules for long. Certainly not once he’s independent.

You may set clear guidelines with your children about screen time, even explaining the risks of screen media. But if your children see you constantly texting, or frequently sitting with your mobile device because “I need to relax…” or  “I’m just checking the…”, the message they assimilate for life will not be all the rules and ideas you taught them.

You need to be a master craftsman if you want your child to be an apprentice.

Before you start changing your children’s use of screen media, make sure that you feel your use of screen media stands as a positive example for them. If you feel it could stand work, then start doing the work.

It doesn’t have to be perfect right away. But when your children see you working on improvement in your own life, little step after little step, that’s a very powerful message.

Ages 0-2

screen time ages 0 to 2 babies

From birth until age 2, your child’s exposure to screen time is almost entirely dependent on you (or a caregiver, and we’ll deal with that shortly).

Children at this age do not need exposure to the tool that is technology. Their brains and visual systems are still in rapid stages of development.

What they need the most for healthy physical, emotional, intellectual and social development is interaction with human beings and with the physical world around them.

A rattle. Hugs. Dolls. Pots, pans and Tupperware containers. Tickling. Standing at the bathroom sink and playing with a cup, spoon and some soapy, bubbly water. Peek-a-boo. Riding toys. Balls. Piggy-back rides. Looking out the window.

The screen time challenge here is ours as parents, especially if we’ve come to rely on screen media for help in entertaining our children.

Plan in advance

The more activity ideas you can pull out for entertaining your child, the less likely you’ll be to reach for a screen. Thankfully, those same screens can give us as parents access to a wide range of ideas. Just Google “activities to do with a one year old” (or whatever your child’s age is) and you’ll see tons of possible activities. Here are some great collections of ideas we found:

11 Fun Activities for 1-Year-Olds

30+ {Busy} 1 Year Old Activities

21 Activities for One Year Olds

It’s okay if they’re not always entertained

The sound of a crying child is super uncomfortable for any healthy parent. We’re programmed like that, to alert us, motivate us and make sure we care for the little creatures that are totally dependent on us for their needs.

But the discomfort can backfire when the child is crying because he wants something, not because he needs something.

Have you ever ended up yelling at your child, “Just stop crying already!” when he’s been wailing for ten minutes about not getting the popsicle he wanted? We’ve sure done that.

Why do we get upset? It could be because a parent has an auditory processing disorder and that crying literally sounded like jack hammering in your ear. But most likely it’s not (and you could probably deal with other noises of that decibel level for ten minutes without yelling at the source).

Instead, the crying probably triggered a subconscious reaction of “I must not be taking care of my child if he’s crying like this.” It’s the discomfort of that emotion, and not the discomfort of the crying itself, that triggered our “Stop it already!” reaction.

Next time, instead of telling your child to stop, tell yourself: “It’s okay if he cries. He’s crying because he didn’t get something he wanted. But that something isn’t good for him. So his crying is a signal that I’m being a good parent and protecting him. And I’m also teaching him the important life lesson that we don’t get everything we want.”

Once all the planned activities have been finished, and your child is still looking for entertainment, you may feel tempted to pull out the screen to entertain him. If your child is crying over the refused popsicle, you may feel tempted to pull out the screen to distract him.

Resist.

It’s okay if your child is not always entertained. It’s okay if your child cries sometimes (assuming it’s because he didn’t get what he wanted, not because he’s missing something he needs).

Letting a child deal sometimes with boredom and frustration is important for their ability to develop resilience and self-regulation.

You can (and should) certainly give them tools and ideas (“Do you want to go play with your blocks?” “Would a hug help you feel better?”) but then give them the space to grow, develop and cope with the inevitable challenges of life.

Relatives and caregivers

When your child is with you, you have control. What about when they’re not? How do you make sure your caregiver or relative isn’t undoing all the hard work you’re putting in?

There are no easy tricks, but here are some tips:

Communication is key

If your child is watched by a hired caregiver, explain your values, priorities and concerns. State clearly how much screen time you want your child exposed to (or not at all). Yes, you will need to trust that your caregiver is abiding by your wishes and not showing your baby screens after you asked her not to.

Things get trickier when it’s not a hired caregiver, but the child’s grandparent or relative who is watching him. Communication is still key (no, it’s not easy; yes, we’ve had to do it ourselves): explain your concerns and wishes, and refer to outside sources as support to explain the developmental issues. Relatives (hopefully) do want what’s best for the child’s future.

Give them help

For either hired caregivers or relatives, the more practical help you can give them, the better. If you’re making a list of activities to do with your child, share it with them! Send along special games or activities that you know will interest your child. The more interested your child is in other things, the less pressure your caretaker will feel to turn to the screen.

Ages 2-5 (Preschool)

Your preschool age child is still basically dependent on you for their screen experiences. Most nursery schools don’t hand out iPads… yet. (Once they hit elementary school the situation is different, and we’ll get to that soon.) If you’re introducing screen time at this age, do your best to keep to the 1 hour a day guideline set by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Create a true learning experience

The best learning for developing preschoolers happens when they engage with the real world. If possible, after a child watches a program on screen media, replicate whatever they watched so they can have a real-world experience to go with the screen experience.

screen time guidelines for preschool kids

If they’ve been watching a dance program, after the screen goes off, help them to make up their own dance. If the program featured baking cake, go bake a cake – or get out a bowl and spoon and pretend to bake a cake. For a preschooler, the experience will be “real” even if it was make-believe, as long as they were physically and socially involved in it.

Additionally, the more they practice playing make-believe and using their imagination, the more they will be able to initiate playing pretend on their own, giving them another tool to keep themselves entertained.

One of my (Amy) daughter’s favorite programs is Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. After she watches the show, we do a similar activity, to enable her to translate that experience to the real world. If the show was about construction workers, we’ll put on a “construction hat” (a baseball cap), get out the blocks and become construction workers building a skyscraper. My daughter is living what she saw on the show – and the learning becomes fully integrated.

As mentioned above, this is a great suggestion to give to caretakers, grandparents or other relatives. It’s another idea for an activity to do with the child, and they can feel good that they’re contributing to the child’s educational development.

Physical activity after screen time

As we mentioned in Part 1 of this article, screen time doesn’t help a child “calm down.” It’s the opposite; watching the rapid visual activity common to screen media is overstimulating. Afterward, the child really needs to calm down… but doesn’t have the tools to do so.

Give them the tools: physical activity. Don’t just leave them to their own devices; give them direction: hopscotch, jump rope, riding a bike, jumping on a trampoline, even running around the block. Inside the house, you can do wheelbarrow races across the living room or basement, create an obstacle course, or run up and down the stairs. Physical activity resets the vestibular system, which affects mood.

physical exercise after screentime

After you use the bathroom, you wash your hands. After screen time, you do physical activity. Make this into an automatic connection, so there’s nothing to talk about.

This is important for all children, but especially children who have sensory or attention deficit issues. Those children are the most sensitive to over-stimulation of the visual system, the corresponding “zoning out” while watching and the challenge in transitioning back to the real world.

If your child has been doing a directed physical activity for what seems to you like a while, and you’d like them to come in and eat supper or do homework, but the child wants to continue, it’s usually wise to let them. If the child is asking for specific sensory input, they almost always need it.

If your child works with an OT already for these issues, ask her what exercises will help regulate your child. Use those exercises to transition out of screen time.

Create good screen habits

Ages 3 to 5 is when a child is developing habits they’ll have for life. Sleeping, eating, personal hygiene, taking care of belongings… (Yes, of course you can learn habits later, but it’s harder. This is the most natural time.)

 

3-5 is when the child will learn his screen time habits. Take advantage and instill positive, healthy ones.

Physical activity after screen time is one critical good-screen-time-habit. But there are more. You can even make these into “House Rules,” with a list or a chart.

  • No screens at meals – or eating while using screens. (One of the possible reasons why more television viewing is linked to obesity is “diminished attention to satiety cues” when you eat while watching.)
  • No screens in the bedroom.
  • Screens should be used in a public place in the house, where the parent can be aware of what’s going on.
  • No screens for at least an hour before bed (so the emitted blue light doesn’t disrupt the length and quality of sleep).
  • Screen time comes with limits. Set a timer for 20 minutes and the the device goes away. Or one 30 minute TV show and the the TV goes off. We give our 4 year olds one scoop of ice cream and when it’s done, it’s done. We don’t put the entire box in front of them and tell them to stop when they’re done, or go take a nap and wander in an hour later to check what’s going on. Screen time should work the same way.

Ages 5-9 (School-age)

screen time for children school age

When your child hits school, screen time management gets more complicated. Many schools use devices in the context of learning – from iPads to smart boards (yes, a smart board is a device and depending on how it’s used can have similar effects to other screen media).

The proliferation of devices in everyday settings and situations was the primary cause of the November 2016 update to the American Academy of Pediatrics screen time recommendation for school-age children, changing the 17 year-old “two-hour guideline” to a “personalized media plan.”

We’ve spoken to many parents who express their frustration with their child being hyper and acting wild in the late afternoon and evening. Unfortunately, when the child is exposed to screens in school, and then comes home and has more screen exposure by watching TV or playing on the computer, their brains have a build-up of over-stimulation, without time to wind down.

As a parent, when you create a media plan for your child, make sure you’re taking into account the media he’s been exposed to in school.  It may mean that you limit the media exposure at home more than you would have otherwise. That can be frustrating to you as a parent, but it is a reality of the world we live in.

If you can limit screen time on school days and have more screen time on weekends instead, that may be better. (Like anything, there’s often some trial and error until you hit upon the right combination for your child.)

All points about physical activity after screen time and continuing healthy habits still apply to our elementary school age children. In addition, here are some other guidelines for healthy screen media consumption.

No screen media before going to school

Children are the most alert and ready to engage with the world when they wake up in the morning. Exposure to screens at that time will start a zoning-out process which will make it harder for them to concentrate and do their best in school.

A number of teachers have told us that they can tell when children have been watching TV or other screen media in the morning before they got to school. If a child is unfocused and they inquire as to the child’s routine that morning, they’ll almost always find the child was using or watching a screen.

This is obviously anecdotal evidence, and doesn’t prove that ALL children who watch screen media will be unfocused, but it does fit in with the biological and developmental effects of screen viewing.

In your child’s media plan, if at all possible, don’t put screen time in the morning. Give them their best shot at focusing in school, and keep the screen time for when they come home.

Educate your kids about screens

The more children understand about what screens do, the more likely they’ll be to follow healthy habits as they get older.

Even within screen activities there is a wide range – some providing actual benefit to the child and some providing nothing but empty entertainment. We admire the way this mom helped her daughter understand the difference between “brain food apps” and “junk food apps,” decide what apps fell into what category, and what was an appropriate use time and limit for each.

When your child is younger, you’ll be guiding any decision making process, educating your child as you do so. As your child gets older, starting from around the age of 8, give them opportunities to make their own decisions about what to do with their screen time, and then afterwards discuss why they chose that.

Teach boredom skills

If kids don’t know what to do when they’re bored, tech will quickly become the default. It’s always there; it will entertain and occupy you; and you don’t have to put in too much effort to get those particular benefits.

As parents, we can teach our children other things to do when they’re bored. One great idea is creating a Bored Jar with different ideas that your child can pull out whenever he’s stuck for something to do.

By planning ahead, and having lists of ideas, it will help us as parents (we won’t be stressed and stuck with bored, complaining kids and no ideas) and it will help our children learn a valuable coping skill in life.

Don’t give kids the charger

This is a practical, physical way of setting limits and keeping you as the parent in the picture. A child gets a device with a certain amount of charge on it, and they need to decide how to use it wisely. When the charge is up, their time is up, and they need to give it back to the parent to get it charged.

Charger control and location can be helpful for parents and their own screen time limits. When I (Evelyn) originally got a smartphone, I found my screen time escalating, checking my emails before I went to bed at night and first thing in the morning – and this is even though I talk about the importance of limiting screen time! To help myself, I decided I would only charge my phone downstairs: not in my bedroom. It was a significant help. To this day, my charger stays out of my bedroom.

What to do if your child uses screens more than you want

At younger grade-school ages, you still naturally have a significant amount of control over the child’s behavior and what he or she does in your home. (Once your children are teens or even preteens, your direct impact is going to be a lot less and/or needs to be navigated more carefully so as not to put too much strain on your relationship.)

If your child has more screen time than you want at this point, start reducing slowly. Don’t feel pressured to rush it. Any step you take will make a difference to your child’s health, and if you do it gradually, the changes are more likely to stick.

Start reducing screen time by 10-15 minutes a day at the most. If your child has a lot of screen time, the impact won’t be felt significantly by her – and you as a parent will have only an additional 10-15 minutes in which you may need to help her find other activities. Keep that steady for a few days. Then reduce another 10-15 minutes and keep that steady for a few days. Repeat until you’re comfortable with the amount of screen time your child has.

Ages 10+

Most of the principles and rules mentioned in ages 2-5 and ages 6-9 should be maintained at this age, if possible.

But (and this is a big but) – whenever your child hits adolescence (and probably pre-adolescence), making and enforcing rules that your teen doesn’t like is hazardous ground. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t; it just means that you need to pick your battles very carefully in order to maintain as open and loving a relationship with them as possible. Screen time may or may not be a worthwhile place to put a battleground, in the grand scheme of all the issues you’re likely dealing with.

teenager screen time

This is one reason why it’s important to establish good habits and house rules when they’re young. A teenager is much more likely to be following them if she was introduced at 3 than if she was introduced at 11. If you didn’t, though, don’t beat yourself up. Really, don’t. It is what it is, and you still have the ability to help your child now, albeit in a different way.

Education and conversation

Keep screen time and related issues as conversation topics, whether as a family or one-on-one with your child. Talk about the concepts of sensory stimulation, your body’s sleep-wake rhythms, and what can interfere with them. Discuss the values of of relationships and of achievement. Raise practical questions about focus and health.

Keep your teen thinking, and guide her to information that will help her expand her knowledge and come to healthy conclusions.

Be a role model

We said it at the very beginning, and we say it again here, because it’s one of your primary ways of influencing teens and pre-teens. If your child sees you growing and changing your habits based on new knowledge about screen time and its impact, those actions will speak louder than any words.

Children with developmental issues

All the guidelines above are intended for normally developing children. If a child has developmental issues, you may be able to keep to the above guidelines by putting in more effort to teach skills or to actively occupy your child. Sometimes – or often – it may be too difficult.

In the opening example of Part 1 of this post, we gave the example of a parent who occupied his child in a restaurant using an iPhone. More than one reader commented that for a child with developmental issues (like autism), there may be no way to finish a meal in a restaurant in a pleasant manner without using a screen device. (And having a pleasant experience is why people go out to eat in the first place.)

In that case, you as a parent may need to give your child that screen to keep them occupied and enable the rest of the family to finish their meal. But it’s important that before you reach for the screen you realize – this is not helping the child.

It may be helping you as a parent, or the family as an entity. And when you weigh out all the factors (including the indirect impact on child if you as parent or family don’t have the ability to rest/eat out/etc.), then that may be the right decision.

It doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. In real life, the right decision in a complex situation will often have both positive and negative consequences. But it can still be the right decision, and if it is: there is no room for any guilt or shame.

That said, because it’s not helping the child (and it’s quite possibly having a negative effect), don’t make that the default. Make it a conscious, thought-out decision.

If you as a parent come out with one thing from this post, it’s that screen time decisions should be conscious decisions. What are the benefits? What are the consequences? Are there other options? Taking into account all the factors, make the best decision you can.

You deserve a standing ovation as parents.

parenting is a dance

Parenting is a dance. A complicated, challenging dance – with multiple dancers, different melodies, and a constantly changing beat. It takes effort, control, agility, balance… and the willingness to fall and then get up again. Even when you’re exhausted, you still need to perform: front and center.

If you got to the end of this very long post, we want to tell you how we know your dance will be a beautiful one, challenging though it may be to perform. We see:

  • Your dedication to your child’s health and development.
  • The effort you’re willing to put in to give him the best chance at a happy, healthy, fulfilling life.
  • The thoughtfulness with which you approach the gift that is the opportunity to raise a child.

We’re here for any of your thoughts and questions on this topic. Just comment below, and we’ll respond.

We wish you insight, patience, strength…  and much, much success with your dance. 

If you want to learn even more about helping children have their best chance at healthy development, especially children with anxiety, ADD/ADHD, learning delays or social-emotional issues, you’re welcome to attend our teleconference on May 23. See here for the topics we’ll be covering and registration details. All proceeds will be going to establishing our foundation to support children with developmental or emotional challenges and their parents.

If you’re in the New York City area, we’re also running an accredited continuing education seminar on June 13 for professionals on helping children with behavioral, emotional or academic challenges relating to sensory processing issues. Many parents have attended in the past and found it very helpful in understanding and gaining practical tools to help their children. See here for more information and registration.

2 Comments

  1. Dia Darcey on May 20, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    This is the single best article I have ever read on screen time limits. Thank you!!! I want to share it with every parent I know!

    • Amy and Evelyn on May 22, 2017 at 3:21 am

      Thank you so much, Dia, for your kind words! We’re so happy it was helpful for you.

      All the best,
      Amy and Evelyn

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