How Much 'Screen Time' Is Too Much? Why That's The Wrong Question

05/15/2015 05:01 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

Parents count on the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to tell them how much media consumption, or "screen time," is safe for their kids. The AAP's long-standing recommendation has been that kids' entertainment screen time be limited to less than one or two hours per day, and for kids under 2, none at all. But in a world where screens surround us -- in restaurants, gas stations, grocery store lines, as background ambiance at home (heck, even in pediatricians' waiting rooms) -- this recommendation is becoming nearly impossible to follow. And that's not even accounting for all the tiny screens on mobile devices within easy grasp of nearly every kid without a paper bag over his or her head. A new survey presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) meeting in April finds,

"Infants just six months old were already logging half an hour a day on mobile devices. And they were not just watching cartoons. A third were swiping and tapping the screens; and a quarter of the babies were actually making calls -- although probably by accident. By age two, nearly all the kids were reported to be using tablets and smartphones -- sometimes while glued to the TV."

Understandably parents want, and need, immediate guidance on how to raise happy and healthy kids, yet rigorous scientific studies of how technology affects the development of young children typically take many years to complete. With technology still in its infancy (the iPad is, after all, only five years old) there is no easy answer to the question of "how much." So maybe parents need to start asking two new questions: "what" and "when."


One thing is indisputably clear -- kids learn from media, and the fact that they now have 24/7 access to screens nearly anywhere and everywhere means they're learning more than ever. So "what" they're watching -- content -- matters. Digital Lifestyle Expert David Ryan Polgar calls this the Kafka vs. Kardashian dilemma saying,

"Our aspiration is to sit down and read Kafka, but the cold hard reality is that we consume Kardashian. There is nothing wrong with watching a show about the Kardashian clan, just like there is nothing wrong with eating a cookie -- but at the end of the day, you are what you eat. In order to have media diet that is rich in higher quality information we need to be cognizant of what we (along with our kids) are watching."

Of course kids aren't going to read Kafka, but the point is they are what they eat and looking at media as a diet that sustains them is a wiser strategy than counting the minutes they consume.

"Quality content matters" says Dr. Chip Donohue, Director of the TEC Center at Erikson Institute, "What they watch is more important than how much" and children learn what to watch by watching the watchers around them -- us. According to Donohue, "How adults use media in front of young children is important."

So instead of catching another episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians our healthy media diet might include co-viewing (or co-playing) a stimulating online game (like Minecraft) with our preteen, or "Skyping" grandma with a toddler on our lap, or asking a teenager to show us how to use Snapchat or Instagram.


Deciding when certain content is appropriate to a child's age and stage of development is important too. For the very young child, research still supports in-person social interactions over screens, as time spent with screens detracts from the face-to-face contact, creative play, hands-on activities, and the physical movement that are the building blocks of healthy brain development. According to Donahue, "'Early childhood essential experiences' matter to child development, relationships matter."

It turns out that relationships matter well past early childhood too. In a recent study conducted by researchers at UCLA, sixth-graders who went five days without glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen and had to look at one another instead did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

But finding a sixth-grader willing to give up a digital screen for five days is like finding a needle in a haystack, so alternatively adults are saddled with the task of figuring out when certain media is suitable for them... and there are not a lot of places to turn for help (i.e., half of all video games contain violence, including more than 90 percent of the games rated appropriate for children 10 years and older). This makes a good case for co-viewing or, a far a possible, pre-viewing and/or educating ourselves as best we can about what media is developmentally right for our kid.

A Magic Pill?

"This is a lot of work."

I hear this a lot from parents, and they're right. Keeping track of the what, when, how much... plus the whole co-viewing thing... it is a lot of work. Parenting was much easier on my parents who could just scream, "Turn off the TV!" from the kitchen when they wanted us to go outside to play.

So I think pediatricians could make it easier on us by prescribing a magic pill for kids. One that boosts their immune systems in order to protect them from all the ills of media use -- cyberbullying, addictive behaviors, sexting, predators, etc. -- while providing healthy vitamins that empower them to use all media (television, mobile devices, computers, etc.) positively and productively.

We have that pill. It's called digital literacy, or digital life skills, and it could be administered to kids, as online safety expert Ann Collier says, "the moment a connected device is placed in their hands." Making this a priority, in school, is a recommendation I'd like to see come from the AAP. Soon.

Because if the doctor orders it, maybe adults will listen.