A Parent’s Guide to Healthy Screen Time

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By Paul Napper and Anthony Rao

Being a parent is challenging enough without policing every moment of your child’s day. Should you stress out when you catch your child sneaking a few minutes of screen time here and there? No. It’s not worth raising your blood pressure. Instead, focus your efforts on getting the big things right. This starts with you (yes, you!) modeling healthy digital habits for your children that they can carry forward into adulthood. 

The basic principle you are modeling for your kids is this: You own—and control—your devices, not the other way around! 

Parents, Start Your Day Off Right 

To start creating better habits, enter the day with a calm, peaceful mind. Wait a few minutes longer than usual each morning before checking your phone or going online. These are rare, beautiful moments to savor. Before your feet hit the floor, remind yourself of one or two things you’re thankful for. Think ahead to one or two things you’re also looking forward to experiencing that day, no matter how small. Do this before you allow digital information to get inside your mind. Then, practice being aware of how you interact with your devices as you go about your day.

Create device-free moments throughout the day:

  • Make it a rule to shut down your devices and keep them out of sight during family meals and when holding conversations. 
  • Leave your phone at home when taking a walk or run. 
  • Refrain from carrying devices next to your body all day. Leave them on desks, countertops, and in other rooms of your house, preferably outside your range of vision. 
  • When not in active use, store devices inside book bags, briefcases, cabinets, and drawers. Research shows that just having your device close to you (even when it’s completely shut off) decreases your cognitive capacity. 

Screen Time for Very Young Children 

Pediatric experts recommend zero screen time for children up to 18 months of age. Why adhere to such conservative recommendations? The first year and a half of a child’s life involves prolific brain growth. Screens can overwhelm a young child’s brain with hyper visual and auditory stimulation. Time spent on screens also robs a child’s developing brain of what it truly needs to grow: rich, real-life experiences. 

Instead of screens, engage your child’s senses:

  • Find activities that engage all of your child’s senses: seeing, touching, feeling, smelling, hearing, and tasting. 
  • Schedule more playtime, especially with other young children. 
  • Be creative. Add in music, singing, dancing, and drawing. Encourage dress up and pretend time.
  • Get outdoors with your child every day, move about, and explore the environment.

Screen Time for Children 2 – 6 Years Old

About an hour of screen time per day is fine, but seek out thoughtful, socially positive, slow-paced programming. 

Fortunately, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is back! Look into retro-programming possibilities, like Sesame Street. Lighthearted sitcoms that your parents enjoyed (think of Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch) can also be great fun to watch alongside your kids. In general, older programming tends to present people interacting in less hurried, less snarky, more wholesome ways. And compared to today’s programming, there isn’t excessive commercialization or blatant product tie-ins. 

While older programs may not be as diverse—and there is likely more stereotyping—use the opportunity to discuss these issues with your kids. Keep in mind that more social time with families and children of different backgrounds is what truly teaches us the value of diversity and mutual respect.

Instead of screens, position your child as a curious learner:

  • Visit your library. Go once a week and see what’s going on there.
  • Encourage your child to build a small library of favorite books. 
  • Share and swap books with other children and families.
  • Visit children’s museums that encourage exploration through hands-on play. 

Instead of screens, move and explore the real world:

  • Get outdoors in all seasons. Take walks, hikes, and bicycle rides.
  • Visit parks and playing fields regularly. Find new friends and set regular meeting times to play outdoors each week.
  • Go on outdoor adventures. Spot birds and insects; wildlife is all around us.

Instead of screens, do and try new things:

  • Garden or grow herbs and vegetables. If you don’t have the space for a garden, growing in pots works well, too.
  • Start a collection of natural objects, like interesting stones, leaves, or seashells.
  • Cook and bake together. Try new foods once a week.

Screen Time for Children 7 – 12 Years Old

Once children are in elementary school, things get trickier for parents who want to hold the line on screen exposure. Schools are introducing more screens into the classroom. Teachers are requiring online research as part of homework and projects. Digital marketing has become aggressive toward this age group as well.  

A good approach is to carve out times of the day (or situations) where screens are off limits. These boundaries can be challenging at first, but well worth the effort. Once new routines are established, your kids may actually prefer these healthier boundaries. Children thrive when expectations are clear and reasonably structured, and when environments aren’t overstimulating. Love and caring are essential, too, of course! 

Be sure to brace yourself for negative pushback as soon as you set screen limits. Get ready to hear: It’s unfair! Everyone else has more screen time. I’m the only kid who has to put my game down! 

Establish these healthy screen boundaries:

  • No screens an hour before bedtime. Research shows screens significantly interfere with maintaining healthy sleep habits.
  • No screens in the morning before school. Morning screens can be a trap for many children. It’s hard for them to break away from a screen’s high stimulation and transition smoothly to school, where learning requires focus and greater mental investment.
  • No screens because your child says, “I’m bored.” Boredom is good; it’s the gateway to deeper thought, self-reflection, and creativity. Children who are heavy screen users, in our experience, frequently complain that they are “bored” when they have to be off screen. 

Reflexively reaching out for digital devices when you’re feeling “bored” is how an addiction to digital devices can start. The real world can seem less tolerable as the brain craves (or is conditioned to crave) faster stimulation and immediate gratification.

  • No screens before chores, responsibilities, and homework are done. Delaying rewards like screen time makes intuitive sense for parents, but there’s another less known advantage. Children tell us that their screen time is much more satisfying after their responsibilities are completed. They feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. Their reward can be enjoyed without guilt or the stress of procrastination looming over them.
  • No screens if there are opportunities to socialize. Many busy children try to keep up with friends online and through social media. The truth is, you simply cannot build and maintain authentic friendships exclusively through screens. Face-to-face interactions (particularly during less structured, less supervised moments) are the best way for children to develop complex social skills. 

Do educational apps add much value?

Educational apps and digital learning programs have value, but they aren’t necessary to develop young children’s basic intellectual skills. Studies show mixed results for what’s taught exclusively on screens. Don’t get seduced into false promises that more screens and devices will make your young child smarter or develop faster. Further research needs to be done on the long-term impact of using digital devices and platforms in education. 

Meanwhile, for very young children, nothing beats learning at a human, non-digital pace, socially alongside others, and with real—not virtual—activities that stimulate all the senses. 

Screen Time for Children in Middle School, High School, and Beyond 

Hours and hours each day can be lost on devices. Take Harrison, a ninth-grader who did the math. He told us he calculated having spent 2,500 hours playing a game called Destiny between sixth and eighth grade. “Think of what I could have done with 30 full days in a year,” he pondered. On his own, Harrison took his Xbox up to the attic for a cooling-off period. That’s agency! 

Are there signs that your preteen or teenager is overdosing on screen time? Parents should be on the lookout for social isolation, less interest in normal activities, chronic irritability, and sleep problems. 

While boys may get heavily involved in gaming, girls may spend more time on social media. Binging is common, as many sites and streaming services now piggyback content and programs with no breaks in between. This shouldn’t be encouraged; it’s like a self-replenishing bag of chips. 

The costs of excessive screen time

Sedentary health problems and missing out on life are obvious costs of excessive screen time. But other costs can be hidden. Many youngsters and young adults undervalue their self-worth as they spend more time on screens. Studies have shown increases in anxiety and depression for heavy Facebook users, and this is only one example. These negative feeling sprout when children compare themselves to people who appear to be more attractive, living a better life, achieving higher scores on games, and receiving more likes or desirable responses on social media. 

By the time high school ends, young adults are starting work, heading for college, or perhaps planning to live on their own. This is when parents should step back and give their young adults space to make their own life choices. 

There may be hard lessons to learn about excessive screen use, but young adults need to experience the consequences of their actions directly. Be supportive, listen, and share your own frustrations about screen dependence. Try not to tell young adults what they should or must do (unless they ask). If you think your son or daughter has an addiction to digital devices, offer support by locating helpful resources and counselors.

When screen time becomes harmful

Tommy’s mom discovered that her son was being mercilessly bullied—not at school, but in her own living room while Tommy was playing Fornite online. Since Fortnite players wear headsets, she couldn’t hear what Tommy was hearing, which included kids ganging up on Tommy with increasingly inappropriate insults, many from his best friends. 

Normally, Tommy would walk away or fight back when treated that way, but the addictive nature of the game entrapped him. The insults added up and took a toll on Tommy emotionally. It had gone on for months. Tommy broke down one day after seeing his school grades drop. His parents thought his recent, uncharacteristic outbursts at home were just part of normal teen angst. They weren’t.

At first, Tommy was extremely upset about losing Fortnite, but he later confessed to his mom that he was secretly thrilled she stepped in and took charge. He needed a way to escape from the harmful exposure masquerading as harmless, friendly play.

Not all screens are bad

While screen time has its drawbacks, it can also be used for opportunity and growth. Coding and programming activities, for example, involve real problem-solving, logic, and the development of valuable skills. There are many examples where screen time is in service of positive, creative, and educational endeavors, including animation, design, photography, and music, just to name a few.  

And here’s more good news: If your child is doing well in school, keeping up with (reasonable) demands, not fighting homework, participating in real-life activities, enjoying physical activities, maintaining real friendships, and enjoying getting outdoors, you can relax and loosen up on screen limits. 

Screen time can be valuable, just as long as you, and your children, are in control.

*  *  *

PAUL NAPPER, Psy.D., leads a management psychology practice. His client list includes Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, universities, and start-ups, and he has held an advanced fellowship during a three-year academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.

ANTHONY RAO, Ph.D., is a cognitive-behavioral therapist. For over 20 years, he was a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. In 1998, he opened a specialized private practice. He appears regularly as an expert commentator.

Their new book is The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms. 

Learn more at PowerOfAgency.com.

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