Screen time and kids: Setting limits for better health

by Kaiser Permanente |
Smiling parent showing their baby a phone

Living in a digital age has its benefits — like easy access to information, and the ability to connect with friends and family across the country. So it makes sense that people are more plugged in than ever, including young children. But at what cost?

Whether it’s with video games, TV, the internet, or even educational apps, spending too much time on devices can be harmful to a young child’s physical and mental health. Kate Land, MD, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente’s Vacaville Medical Center and author of the Thriving Families blog, notes that children who spend more time looking at screens are more likely to have poor sleep and delayed emotional development.

So, how can you help your kids develop healthy digital habits? Dr. Land shares her tips for creating a digital diet that works for your family.

How much screen time is too much for children?

The answer often depends on age, but generally, less is better, says Dr. Land. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following guidelines:

  • For children under 18 months — Avoid screens except for video chats with family and friends. And don’t just hand the device to your child. Instead, stay present and engaged during the call.
  • For children 18 to 24 months — It’s OK to introduce them to digital media. But be sure to choose high-quality content and watch it with them. This way, you’re there to help kids understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children 2 to 5 years — Limit screen time to one hour a day or less. And seek out high-quality apps and shows without any fast-paced or violent content. Dr. Land considers Common Sense Media, PBS Kids, and Sesame Workshop good resources for helping you vet appropriate media.
  • For children 6 and older — Put consistent limits on the amount of time spent using digital media and what types they use. Also, make sure digital devices don’t get in the way of quality sleep and physical activity.

6 everyday screen-time tips

A healthy relationship with digital devices is important for the whole family. Here are tips you can start using today.

Set limits

The age guidelines above can help you decide whether to cut back on your child’s screen time. But it’s not one-size-fits-all. The American Academy of Pediatrics built an interactive Family Media Plan so you can set personalized rules and goals that work for your family.

Be an example

Be aware of how often you use our own devices, too. "If our kids see us distracted by our phones," Dr. Land notes, "they feel ignored." When you’re with your children, make them your priority — not your phone. Try setting your phone on silent and turning off notifications, so you won’t get a ping for every news alert or text.

"Children under 2 can’t learn from screens yet," Dr. Land explains. "They learn by interacting with their caregivers." So instead of watching television or using an app, you can spend time singing, talking, reading, or playing together. "These activities will always be a better way to teach vocabulary, language, and social skills," says Dr. Land.

Keep mealtime screen-free

Meals are a time for families to reconnect and focus on each other — not screens. So set a "no devices at the table" rule. And if you’re going out to a restaurant, bring activities like a pad of paper and crayons or stickers to keep young children busy. Need help keeping mealtime as stress-free as possible? Check out other simple ways to improve your dinner routine.

Shut off screens before bed

Winding down at night is important for both kids and adults. Dr. Land recommends avoiding screens 1 to 2 hours before bedtime. Try removing all screens from the bedroom. You can even choose a specific area of your home where everyone can charge their devices overnight.

Share screen time

When your children do watch television or use an online app, join them. Try repeating things they hear, and then ask them to say it back to you. Then connect what they’re learning on screen to real life. For example, if a bird chirps on a TV show, take your child for a walk to point out birds and the sounds they’re making. "This helps them connect digital learning with the world around them," says Dr. Land.

Avoid using devices to calm kids

Using devices to calm kids may work in the short term, but it prevents them from learning to self-regulate or self-soothe, says Dr. Land. Instead, teach them how to manage their emotions with things like deep breathing. You can also talk through the moment, hug them, sit there while they work through it, or distract them with something like their favorite book or song.

As a mother of 3, Dr. Land knows how tough parenting can be. There may be days when a parent needs to give their attention to an older child — or just reset. So don’t beat yourself up if your child sometimes gets more screen time than usual. Just be aware of what they’re watching and for how long. Then, you can readjust your family’s digital diet as needed.

Cynthia Kathleen Seitz, MD, a pediatrician at the Kaiser Permanente Salmon Creek Medical Office, agrees. "The idea of zero screens for the rest of your life is not realistic. But if a child is having issues, like throwing a temper tantrum when electronics are taken away, then it’s time to do a digital fast to break the habit that has developed," Dr. Seitz says. Two weeks without electronics is usually enough to reset the brain. "It can really improve concentration, behavior, and anxiety," says Dr. Seitz.

Still not sure how much screen time is best?

If you’re having trouble finding a balance for yourself or a little one, talk to your doctor or your child’s pediatrician. They’ll help you find the right solution for you and your family.