Less Screen Time Means a Healthier Mind and Body for Kids

little child sitting comfortably in sofa watching tablet
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If you've ever wondered whether it's worth fighting with your child over the amount of time they spend in front of their phone, tablet, or television, the answer, according to recent studies, is a resounding "yes." While certain types of technology can enhance the way children learn and socialize, excessive screen use can take a toll on their bodies, minds, and relationships.

Less social media and gaming mean kids can spend more time interacting with friends and family, going outside, getting some exercise, or reading a book. Recently, studies have shown that setting limits on screen time can have a positive effect on kids' physical, social, and behavioral well-being, and it can even improve their academic performance.

How Excessive Screen Time Is Harmful

Research has shown that kids spend more time using electronic media devices than they do on any other activity—an average of seven hours a day across all age groups. Young children ages 2 to 5 are on phones and tablets for just under two hours per day. School-age kids spend an average of four to six hours on devices per day and teens log up to nine hours.

How do you know if your child is spending too much time on their screens? When technology becomes an emotional crutch to escape sadness or boredom or continually disrupts daily life (like mealtime), those are signs that a child's screen use is excessive, according to pediatric media experts at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Screen-preoccupied kids may also frequently worry about things like battery life and their devices being taken away.

Spending too much time on screens has been linked to inadequate sleep, poor grades, and a greater risk of obesity. There are psychological tolls, too, especially among older children. One study showed that teens who are on their screens for seven or more hours per day are more than twice as likely to have depression or another mental health issue than those who use screens for an hour or less per day.

Researchers found that kids' exposure to educational media (enriching programs such as "Sesame Street" or an online math game, for example) diminishes as children get older, even as kids begin to increase their screen time. The proportion of screen time spent on brain-boosting media drops from 78% for younger kids to 27% for older children.

Benefits of Reducing Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents limit screen time to no more than one hour a day for kids ages 2 to 5 and avoid screen time altogether for babies and children under 18 months. An exception to this rule for all young children may be video chatting with family and friends, which boosts communication skills and is considered "high-quality" media use.

When unplugged, toddlers and preschoolers will have more time to develop important skills. Simple playtime activities such as imaginary games or manipulating toys are deceptively important for learning and building creativity. Children whose screen time is limited also enjoy more time to build communication skills, move their bodies, and get adequate rest.

Researchers have found that when parents monitor their older kids' tech habits—restricting the amount of time kids are allowed to use their devices, or actively discussing themes and other aspects of the content they were watching—there were social, academic, and physical changes for the better.

One study looking at third, fourth, and fifth graders linked kids' screen limits to overall wellness. When parents monitored media use, children had reduced exposure to media violence and negative messaging as well as improved sleep, lower body mass index (BMI), better school performance, improved social behavior, and reduced aggression.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age.

Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

Strategies for Setting Screen Limits

Technology makes certain educational concepts more engaging, connects children with peers and distant family members, and provides fun entertainment for kids (and sometimes, a welcome break for parents!). But limits are key to making sure that kids' screen use does not hamper their health, development, and mental well-being. Below are strategies you can use to set healthy limits.

Set Time Limits—and Stick to Them

Whether it's one hour of TV after homework is done or no more than 30 minutes total of TikTok or Snapchat, establish clear rules and limits for screen use. Apple, Android, and many cable and wireless carriers provide parental control tools in which you can have your child's access to the internet or even certain programs and platforms limited to certain times.

As tempting as it may be to give in when kids beg, whine, and bargain for more time to chat with friends, watch a favorite show, or finish a Fortnite round, be as firm and consistent as possible.

No Screens in Your Child's Room

The AAP advises against allowing your child to have any media devices in their bedroom. Kids who have a television or mobile device in their bedrooms end up being online much more than children who don't. These children also get less sleep than others, regardless of how often they log on, potentially because of the effect of blue light emissions from tech devices on sleep-wake cycles.

To encourage other activities and protect kids' sleep, consider having children plug in their phones, tablets, or any other devices in a room other than their bedroom at night.

Know What Your Child Is Viewing

Research shows that viewing content with a child and actively discussing themes, thinking about what's viewed critically, and talking about the effects and meaning of the viewed content is one of the best types of monitoring parents can do. Get into the habit of knowing what your child is seeing and hearing when they are online, playing video games, or watching TV.

Be sure to limit the amount of violent content your child is exposed to. Research has shown that violent content is linked to aggression and other behavioral issues in kids.

A Word From Verywell

There's no shame in letting kids indulge in age-appropriate videos, games, and social media platforms during downtime. There's a lot of good to come from kids' access to high-quality digital media, including increased social connection and exposure to brain-stimulating content. But it's smart to set limits, and never too late to create healthy rules around screen time.

Parents may not notice the benefits of restricting and monitoring screen time right away, just as they may not notice a child getting taller day to day. However, a so-called "ripple effect" can occur. Monitoring screen time and content don't immediately lead to changes, but over time, there is a wide range of health and wellness benefits.

Remind yourself that it's worth the arguments. Your child may be one unhappy camper when their screen time is limited and monitored, especially at first, but remember that there will be many benefits for them in the long run—including more quality time spent with you.

11 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.