How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?

As screens in all their shapes and sizes become an increasingly ubiquitous part of our work and personal lives, it is up to us to decide how much is too much when it comes to gazing at them. But what many adults might not realize is that they have a specific advantage to assessing and limiting their so-called “screen time”: they can actually remember a time before screens dominated everything we do.
The same cannot be said for many children today, who were born in a time when their schoolwork, entertainment, communication methods, and friendships all played out in pixels. Today’s kids may not see a need to spend less time in front of screens, because it’s all they’ve ever known. Meanwhile, for parents, it can be disconcerting to see their kids become seemingly addicted to screens, yet simultaneously difficult to figure out how to limit the activity given the societal pressure and emphasis on technology. After all, the family computer in the living room is a thing of the past. Computers now follow us into our bedrooms, and into our classrooms and offices. Even if a parent didn’t want their 13 year old to have a smartphone, the modern needs of communication and even safety precautions would likely mean that it’d be more convenient for them to have one.
What is increasingly required is real-world advice about kids and screen time. No one wants to wage a 24/7 battle with a six year old over an iPad and, after all, a moderate amount of time spent playing video games is not going to derail a child’s brain forever. Parents need realistic advice on this issue. Resources like Common Sense Media and WebWise are a good place for parents to start when looking for guidance, but the biggest hurdle is understanding that the main issue is not necessarily limiting screen time, but the quality of what that screen time is.
Previously, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised that 2 hours of screen time per day was the maximum a child over two should be allowed. However, the blanket recommendation doesn’t account for the fact that homework is often done on a screen, as is talking to friends, an activity that builds social skills. As CNN quoted the lead author on a report about children and digital media, “It doesn’t make sense to make a blanket statement [of two hours] of screen time anymore. For some children, two hours may be too much.”
One of they key factors in determining your child’s ideal screen time is to distinguish between different types of activities. As Anil Dash, a technologist, father and leading ethical tech advocate said on the “On Being” podcast, differentiating between, say, reading a book on a screen, and playing a mindless game on a screen, is key. “The idea that they’re both on pages and are therefore equivalent is absurd, and yet we talk about screen time that way. I’m like, is he playing chess on the iPad? Or is he watching funny YouTube videos of animals falling over? Which is also awesome, but different.”
In other words, setting limits is essential, but thinking about the content of what you’re limiting—rather than the simple fact that it’s being consumed via a screen—is the point. In its updated guidelines, the AAP clarified that time spent on a computer doing homework does not count as screen time, as the brain is being engaged in an active, rather than passive, way. Try and think about the meaning behind what your child is doing, and encourage them to explain it to you in your words. The key is to not be so heavy-handed in monitoring your child’s screen time that they begin to shield their digital life from you. Communication, even in the digital age, is still fundamental.