How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?

BY Anthony Rao TIMEMarch 10, 2022 PRINT

Always consider your child’s developmental age when deciding how much screen time is appropriate. At young ages, adhere to the more conservative pediatric guidelines that call for very strict limits. That’s no more than a few minutes a day of exposure. This youngest developmental period involves the most rapid neurological growth. During this period learning and experiencing the world shouldn’t be digital or virtual. It needs to be truly social and involve real-life play with real objects that one can see, touch, manipulate, move about, and combine in novel ways. What these youngest children see and do will directly impact their brain growth and plot out development for years to come.

From three to six years old, some screen time each day is fine. Try to stick with educational TV programming of about an hour a day or less, and try to find programs that have real people, real stories, and aren’t hyper-stimulating or over-animated. Start with shows like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood as an excellent model. Such programs may feel a bit outdated, but that’s what young minds need. Calm dialog, routine, repetition, familiar faces, and people interacting in positive social ways. Educational apps on tablets and other screens are occasionally fun, but don’t get seduced into false promises that they will make your young child smarter and learn faster. Studies show that while some children appear to be learning quickly with these electronic platforms, most end up in the same place academically, whether screens are used or not. Some researchers have discovered they may in fact do harm. Learning is compromised when it’s done on screens for certain tasks, like reading ebooks versus words on real paper. Heavy screen exposure also runs the risk of ADHD, near-sightedness, learning disabilities, sleep problems, and poor physical health from being sedentary. Too much screen time, even if it’s believed to be educational, may be conditioning young minds to crave faster and faster stimulation. They can become intolerant in real-life when results don’t magically appear with a click or tap. It can lay a foundation for something very worrisome — an addictive need for screens that is starting to show up in some children in the elementary school years.

Once kids reach elementary school years, seven or eight years old, things get very complicated for parents who are trying to manage screen exposure. Schools are introducing more screens into the classroom. More teachers are encouraging Internet and keyboarding as part of homework. More gaming products and media programming are aggressively marketed to this age group. This is the era when I tell parents to start controlling when (not just how much) screen time is used. If it’s for entertainment, screens should only be available once homework and any other responsibilities are completed. If possible, have a set hour later in the day for screens so that kids don’t think of screens as always available and the go-to-activity when they are bored or alone. No screens if possible within an hour of bedtime.

By middle school and up, watch for social isolation, disinterest in activities, chronic irritability, and sleep problems. These may be signs that your preteen or teen is overdosing on screen time. Boys tend to get heavily involved in gaming while girls spend more time on social media. Watch for teens falling into the trap of seeing themselves – and defining their self-worth – through scores on video games or social media. If your teenager is doing well in high school, keeping up with homework, participating in sports and/or positive activities, and prefers meeting up with friends to hanging indoors alone in front of a screen, I tell parents that they can loosen the rules on screen time. The goal is for teenagers to learn how to monitor and manage their screen time before they leave high school.

This story was originally published on the Dr. Anthony Rao blog

Anthony Rao
Dr. Anthony Rao holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Vanderbilt University and trained as a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. For more than 20 years, Dr. Rao worked in the Department of Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital and served as instructor at Harvard Medical School, where he trained psychologists and physicians in the use of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, or CBT.
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