Many of us were young adults before we had access to our own television and computer screens, let alone handheld devices like smartphones. We lived a constructive life, playing outside, inventing games indoors, and occupying ourselves with what we had. 

The world is radically different today. 

Today, nearly everyone has access to a device. Our babies see it in our hands, occupying our attention, and they are interested, too. Older children are drawn to videos, games, and other activities designed to garner their awareness and engage them. They are designed to be appealing, and it’s our job to set those limitations. 

This begs the question: how much screen time is too much screen time?

The answer depends. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children between the ages of 2 and 5 years old should have no more than one hour of screen time per day. 

School-aged children should have consistent limits on the amount of time they spend on electronic media and entertainment, and quality vs. quantity should also be a consideration. 

Before we get into the nitty gritty of time, content, and boundaries, let’s first discuss the symptoms of excessive screen time. 

What are the Symptoms of Too Much Screen Time?

You are likely reading this on your computer, tablet, or smartphone. Check-in on your own physical health. Have you been scrolling the internet for advice for several hours? Does this come at the end of a workday spent in front of a computer? How are your eyes right now? How is your head?

Physical symptoms of too much screen time can manifest through eye strain, headaches, and postural defects like painful muscles in the neck. Additionally, hours spent in front of a screen are hours spent sedentary. Have you moved your body today? Have your kids moved theirs? We know our exercise level affects our weight and even our mental health. 

Studies by The Sleep Foundation have shown that individuals who engage with screens before bed have a poorer quality of sleep. Screens are found to suppress the production of melatonin, an important sleep hormone, and their usage increases feelings of alertness. When our children are babies, we acknowledge cranky behaviors as caused by hunger and sleepiness. It is natural to assume lack of sleep will affect them in adolescence and adulthood, too. 

Does Screen Time Affect Behavior?

Short answer: yes! It has been found that external behaviors, such as aggression and inattention, as well as internal behaviors, like anxiety and depression, increase in relation to higher amounts of screen time.  

According to a JAMA Psychiatry study titled the Association of Screen Time With Internalizing and Externalizing Behavior Problems in Children 12 Years or Younger, “The primary outcome was the association of screen time duration with externalizing (e.g., aggression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms) and internalizing (e.g., depression, anxiety) behaviors or diagnoses.”

Aggressive tendencies were more strongly externalized in boys compared with girls, and this was often the result of exposure to violent content, including video games. 

Negative internalized behavior, like anxiety and depression, were equally affected by all genders. 

Inattentiveness also increased among both age groups. 

How Do I Reduce My Child’s Screen Time?

You are not helpless here. There are many things you can do to ensure your child spends a limited amount of time in front of a screen. 

First and foremost, model the behavior you want to see. If you are constantly tuned into your phone for work, entertainment, and general curiosity—put it away! Your child is more aware than she puts on, and she will follow your lead. 

This is a family effort, so start by being realistic. If your job relates to your phone or email, try to keep it within those work hours. When work is over, spend quality time with your child instead of engaging with your device. 

What Can I Replace Screen Time With?

Start by creating a “No Phone Zone.”

Dinnertime, including dinner prep, is an excellent time to touch base with your child without screens. Engage in conversation the old-fashioned way. Talk about school, activities, and upcoming events. 

Friday nights with popcorn and a movie should always be fully dedicated to a snuggle and a film. Ensure tablets, telephones, and other devices are plugged in and put away.

Go Outside

If you’re lucky enough to have a yard, use it. If not, go for a walk. Go to the park or playground. Just go outside. Moving our bodies is proven to reduce anxiety and depression, boosting mood and improving physical and mental health. Take a break from the screens and experience the outdoors. 

Shut-off Times

Bedtime routines were once a part of your baby’s schedule, and they probably did not include phones. Expand upon this and implement a shut-off time, where phones are put up and charging, in the hour before bedtime. This includes television, too. Engage in other activities, like reading and story-time. Practice gratitude by recalling the things you are grateful for. This is a great time to incorporate sleep hygiene habits like baths, teeth brushing, and preparation of lunches or materials needed for the next day. All these things can be completed without screens. 

Quality vs. Quantity

In our efforts to reduce the amount of time we allow our children to spend on screens; we also need to consider what they are consuming. Sure, there are millions of YouTube videos, TikTok reels, and messaging apps that amass our children’s attention, but what if you can convert that into enriching content?

There are hundreds of quality learning apps that engage and educate, including products that are geared toward individual learning styles and age-appropriate topics. These can be researched and reviewed in your device’s app stores, and you can choose from a variety of free and paid-for subscriptions. 

Let’s not forget the benefits of a well-rounded documentary, too. 

Nonetheless, real-life experiences are invaluable, and nothing beats one-on-one learning with Mom or Dad as you tackle difficult homework or a trip to the Zoo to learn about interesting and exciting wildlife. 

As you navigate this technology-forward world, consider placing limitations on your child’s screen experience by setting age-appropriate time limits and phone-free spaces within your homes. 

Recommendations for Screen Time for Children

Solid guidelines from the American Pediatric Association suggest screen time should be limited to:

Under 2 years old: Zero screen time

2-5 years old: No more than one hour per day and always supervised.

5-17 years old: No more than two hours per day, except for homework and supplemental eLearning. 

Beyond these hours, fill your family time with enriching events and memory-making family activities like board games, picnics, and field trips. If you have to include your phone, use it to take a photo of your fun—and then put it away!