Is Screen Time Really So Bad For Kids? We Asked Experts For the Truth — and It May Surprise You

Asian young boy using smartphone in the bedroom
Pexels | Kampus Production

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 (AAP) 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? Experts shared the risk and benefits (yes, benefits) of screen time and why parents should empower themselves to make the best, most informed decisions for their families.

What Are the Dangers of Too Much Screen Time?

According to Don Grant, PhD, media psychologist and national advisor of healthy device management at Newport Healthcare, there's a long list of problems too much screen time can contribute to, including:

  • Poor sleep
  • Attention problems
  • Body-image issues and poor self-esteem
  • Obesity
  • Withdrawal from healthy offline activities and relationships
  • Academic disruptions
  • Diminished imagination
  • Access to inappropriate content
  • Exposure to misinformation
  • Privacy violations
  • Predators
  • Mental health issues and aggression

Whew — it looks like a lot. But the AAP also cites many of these issues in its policy statement on screen time for children and adolescents, including obesity, mental health, and privacy concerns.

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 school work is often done on tablets and computers. Fear not, as screen time in moderation can actually have positive effects on children."

Even the AAP points to potential benefits of screen time, including exposure to new ideas, awareness of current events, and the ability to engage in community and civic opportunities.

Screens also provide a means for connection. "Connecting with friends via video and texting is great for their social-skills development," says Regine Muradian, PsyD., a licensed clinical psychologist and author. "During the pandemic, screen time was an incredible benefit and tool, as without it, they wouldn't have been able to keep up with learning and connecting with friends."

Even video games may have some benefits. A 2022 study of more than 2,000 children ages 9-10 found that kids who gamed for three to four hours daily had higher cognitive-skills test scores and greater impulse control than their nongaming peers.

Gaming also provides social opportunities. "A child may find a peer with similar interests as them when playing a video game online, and I see many children in my practice who have regular Fortnite or Minecraft playdates," Dr. Khan says.

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

"Experts, including the AAP, do not recommend any screen time at all for babies under the age of 18 months, with the exception of allowing video chatting with family members if face-to-face interaction is not possible," Dr. Grant says.

And most recently, a 2023 JAMA study found that increased screen-time use in infancy led to reduced executive functioning by age 9.

But talk to other parents or spend time in a parenting Facebook group, and you're bound to hear someone credit TV or YouTube for teaching their 10-month-old to talk, specifically programs like "Ms. Rachel."

There's currently no evidence that screen exposure for babies quickens development, but rather the opposite. "Babies do not understand screen content and therefore cannot translate to the physical world what they see on a two-dimensional screen," Dr. Grant says. "The sounds and content of what they see on screens can sometimes be jarring to an infant's sensitive ears, unsettling to their developing vision, overstimulating to their rapidly developing brain, and generate undesired cognitive and structural changes."

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.

If you're going to do it, though, Dr. Khan suggests limiting it to the duration of a short shower or some quick meal prep, then engaging the infant in interactive play. Nothing can capture their focus more than the smile of their parent, 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 with development.

The truth is as children grow, screen time is inevitable. "Ultimately, screens are a part of life, so it's unreasonable to forgo their use or completely limit them," says Caroline Danda, PhD, licensed psychologist. "It's important to identify what makes sense for your child or teen given their overall development and needs. The goal is to set limits and provide guidance to help your child and teen become good consumers of technology and screens."

Dr. Grant agrees and empowers parents to take the reins with input from their children as they grow. "I believe that parents should be the guardians of their child's screen time," he says. "There should be limits on a child's screen time, with expectations clearly explained and discussed. Start from their first use, and continue age-appropriate conversations throughout their adolescence."

Screen-Time Recommendations by Age

If you're still uncertain about exactly how much screen time to give your kids, consider these age suggestions. Age appropriateness is a common theme in AAP and expert guidelines. Here's a breakdown with expert tips:

Ages 0-18 months

Dr. Grant doesn't recommend any screen time for children in this age group, except for video chatting with family and friends, per AAP recommendations. Dr. Khan agrees but understands the need for flexibility.

"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. Grant says parents might introduce some limited screen time at this stage. It's best to sit with the child. And 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.

"They are also usually interacting both with it and also through it with their peers for shared homework and projects," he says. "Experts recommend allowing these academic-based developmental screen activities, monitoring their screen time when they engage with them outside of school, still setting consistent limits, and continuing to share parental/caregiver expectations of screen activities and behaviors."

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. "Parents should restrict their children from playing violent video games. It is not recommended that parents provide their child with their own personal smartphone," Dr. Khan says.

Ages 9-15 years

Dr. Khan says two to four hours daily are appropriate at this age. "As children become preteens, tweens, and teens, they will most likely beg for increased screen time, more sophisticated devices, and apps and games," Dr. Grant says.

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.

"Clearly discuss expectations of time limits, online behavior, and agree with their child on the consequences for any deviations from the privilege of screen use," Dr. Grant says. "Parents can also begin to discuss digital literacy with their children, encouraging them to critically assess what is delivered through their screens, reminding them of family values and expectations regarding content, talk with them about the online risks identified above."

Dr. Grant suggests role-playing or practicing with prompts that encourage children to think critically about common scenarios they'll encounter online. Simply starting phrases like "What would you do if . . ." works. "This is also the stage to age appropriately discuss cyber-aggressive behaviors and how to successfully navigate them should they occur," Dr. Grant says.

Ages 16-18 years

"By this time, it is reasonable to assume that a teenager has been using screens for the greater part of their lives," Dr. Grant says. "Battles over screen time have most likely been fought, time limits expanded, and parent or caregiver expectations discussed many times."

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). Dr. Grant's outlook on screen time at this age is also similar. "The recommendations are the same as for children ages 9 to 15, with reasonable leniency for their age and their demonstration of ability to navigate healthy device management and behavior without any negative impacts."

How to Establish Screen-Time Boundaries as a Family

Now that you have the most up-to-date information, you can make educated decisions about what's best for your family when it comes to screen time. Experts shared tips to get you started and help those boundaries stick.

Content Matters

Look for educational content. "Sesame Street" is a good one. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that rates media and technology content, can also be a useful resource. And apps like The Social Express II, Middle School Confidential 1: Be Confident in Who You Are, and Sit With Us are designed with education in mind. Dr. Muradian also suggests parents look into Bark Technologies, which monitors children's devices and flags cyberbullying, adult content, and sexual predators.

Make It a Team Effort

As your children grow into tweens and teens, give them some say in screen-time limits.

"Establishing a preplanned agreement on how much time on Saturday they will play video games is important," Dr. Muradian says. "Kids want and need structure and boundaries despite their argumentative state. Asking them how much time they think is needed is a way of giving them independence and control and leaves room for negotiation."

Practice What You Preach

Dr. Grant recommends taking a "do as I say and as I do" approach to screen time.

"Perhaps most importantly, I strongly encourage parents and caregivers to model the same screen-time behaviors they expect from their kids: no devices/screens during family meals, outings, or at events; engaging with the same behavior and conduct online as they would [in real life]; and limiting or avoiding screen time when with others," Dr. Grant says.

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. "Your child will likely not appreciate having restrictions and limitations placed on their usage of electronic devices, and you may have to deal with tantrums and meltdowns, but this is something they will eventually become accustomed to and actually thank you for in the future. Children need structure and do their best when they have such guidance from authority figures, especially their loved ones."

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