Screen time recommendations and opinions often feel laced with judgment and shame — even if they are evidence-based. In this PopSugar article, Mindpath Health’s Zishan Khan, MD, discusses why children should have some screen time and recommendations for each age group.
Screen time. Just uttering the words can feel akin to pouring gasoline about two inches from a fire, at least in the parenting world.
Screen time can have a loaded connotation, and recommendations and opinions often feel laced with judgment and shame — even if they are evidence-based. Nevertheless, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that today’s children spend about seven hours a day consuming entertainment media, including TV, phones, computers, and other electronic devices. That’s clearly a lot, but when it comes to screen time, figuring out a good balance can be difficult.
“My personal beliefs on screen time for kids have dramatically shifted after having children of my own,” says Zishan Khan, MD, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “Prior to that, it was much easier for me to envision a world where my wife and I rigidly followed the guidelines we learned and counseled the parents of our patients within our respective practices as psychiatrists. However, in reality, life demands flexibility.”
But the general recommendations — the ones that advise against screen time for kids under 18 months and urge limits for kids older than that — are in place for a reason, right? And if so, what flexibility and grace can parents grant themselves?
What are the dangers of too much screen time?
According to Don Grant, PhD, there’s a long list of problems too much screen time can contribute to, including:
- Academic disruptions
- Access to inappropriate content
- Attention problems
- Body-image issues and poor self-esteem
- Diminished imagination
- Exposure to misinformation
- Mental health issues and aggression
- Poor sleep
- Privacy violations
- Withdrawal from healthy offline activities and relationships
What are the benefits of screen time?
After reading the above list, you may be ready to unplug the TV and hide every screen. Breathe.
“Parents may understandably be concerned, considering how prevalent electronic devices have become in our daily lives,” Dr. Khan says. “Even schoolwork is often done on tablets and computers. Fear not, as moderate screen time can positively affect children.”
Dr. Khan says other potential screen-time benefits include:
- Improved mental health and confidence
- Learning and critical-thinking skills from educational content and even video games
- Improved reading, writing, and math skills from educational content
- Fine motor skill improvement from gaming
Screen-time for babies
Most recently, a 2023 study found that increased screen-time use in infancy led to reduced executive functioning by age 9.
A 2013 study, cited in the AAP’s policy statement on screen time and young minds, had similar findings. It found that 15-month-old toddlers could pick up new words on touchscreens but struggled to apply that to the three-dimensional world.
That being said, if you need to shower in peace, and you’ve already stuck your baby in front of a screen, Dr. Khan gets it. “That doesn’t mean you have ruined your child or are being neglectful by placing your baby in their walker to watch a video of ‘Thomas & Friends’ on your iPad while you quickly take a shower or prepare dinner for the family,” he says.
Screen-time for kids
Once your child nears their second birthday, some screen time can be beneficial. The AAP recommends cutting it off for children ages 2-5 after one hour. And Dr. Grant encourages parents to be discerning about the content.
“It isn’t necessarily about the quantity of their engagement but the quality,” he says. The AAP policy statement noted that some well-designed shows for preschoolers, specifically “Sesame Street,” could help development.
Screen-time recommendations by age
Ages 0-18 months
“None, unless it is for brief periods to allow a parent to take a break and gather themselves, engage in self-care, grooming, and hygiene,” Dr. Khan says. “The key here is to limit it to short periods of time and try and avoid exposing them to electronic devices as much as possible.”
Ages 18 months-2 years
Dr. Khan suggests keeping it under an hour of “content limited to educational and children’s-focused material.”
Ages 2-5 years
Dr. Grant advises parents to keep screen time to less than one hour per day with a focus on high-quality, educational content.
Ages 5-9 years
As children enter school, some assignments may include screen time, Dr. Grant says. Be prepared that their screen-time limits will likely have to change.
But what about a favorite TV show? Video games? An iPhone? Dr. Khan recommends a maximum of two hours of screen time daily for this type of content. And parents should still be mindful of what their child is viewing on screen.
Ages 9-15 years
Dr. Khan says two to four hours daily are appropriate at this age.
He advises against allowing children under 13 to create social media accounts. Fortunately, most platforms have those age limits (though kids can work around them fairly easily). Still, even the lower end of this age group can understand conversations about appropriate online behavior that lay a foundation for children to engage in social media use down the line.
Ages 16-18 years
Dr. Khan’s time-limit recommendations are the same as the ones he gave for 9- to 15-year-olds (two to four hours daily).
Reevaluate as needed
Once you have limitations, remember that nothing is set in stone — even if your teen helped develop screen-time guidelines. A few red flags that the house rules aren’t working, per Dr. Khan, include:
- Disrupted sleep
- Lower attention span
- Mood changes or irritable or aggressive behavior
- Declining academic performance
“Parents need to learn to set limits and feel comfortable taking away privileges,” Dr. Khan. “Children need structure and do their best when they have such guidance from authority figures, especially their loved ones.”