How to Find the Right Balance for Your Kid's School & Home Screen Time

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There's no question that how to balance screen time continues to be a challenge for parents. A November 2022 meta-analysis published in JAMA found that kids’ use of screens increased by a whopping 52% since the pandemic began in March 2020. This may sound shocking, but most parents who hear this statistic will immediately nod their heads in agreement. In fact, despite our kids returning to school and adjusting to the “new normal,” many of us have observed that screen use in kids is still at sky-high levels.

I have seen this firsthand. Before the pandemic, using a screen during school was a special treat for my kids. Now, it’s a normal part of their school day; they use devices frequently in the classroom, and all of their homework is done on a computer or iPad. Like many kids, their personal devices are how they interact with friends and consume their entertainment.

The question becomes: How can parents create some balance? We’ve been told repeatedly that too much screen time is unhealthy for our kids, but with school also relying heavily on electronics, many of us are finding it difficult to enforce limits.

Ahead, experts break down this new screen time landscape, along with how parents can create some healthy boundaries for their kids.

Does Educational Screen Time "Count?"

Organizations like the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) suggest limiting screen time for kids, warning that too much screen time can lead to obesity, sleep issues, and developmental delays. They advise parents to limit 2-5 year-olds to no more than one hour of screen time per day, and advise parents of older children to keep screen time to a minimum, encouraging them to keep devices out of bedrooms.

Once your child is in school, these guidelines seem daunting to follow, especially since the current surge in educational screen time use. Many parents may wonder whether or not to "count" educational screen time as part of their child’s daily screen time usage.

Unfortunately, experts agree that all screen time—whether it be for educational purposes or entertainment—has the same effect on kids. “It absolutely counts,” says Robyn Rausch, LPC-S, RPT-S, licensed professional counseling supervisor and registered play therapist who runs a platform called Calming Communities. “The impact of the screen is that the lighting and rapid display of visual and auditory stimulation dysregulates the nervous system.”

A child’s brain becomes overwhelmed when viewing a screen for long periods, Rausch explains. “This results in stress chemicals being released that can cause the child to feel emotional,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what is on the screen for this effect to occur, only that it is a screen in front of their eyes.”

No matter what a child is doing on a device, they are being exposed to blue light, which can disrupt sleep, explains Bibi Pirayesh, Ed.D., founder and educational therapist at Doing schoolwork on a screen often involves interacting with a computer, rather than a human, which can create psychological stress on kids.

“We are encouraging engagement with a screen over engagement with humans and nature,” says Dr. Pirayesh. “This is isolating and a lot of the increase in anxiety and depression we see as a result of the pandemic is exacerbated by this. The human brain is designed to learn through mirror neurons and through engagement and connection with other people, not a bot.”

Active vs. Passive Screen Time

Passive screen usage is when your child is taking in something on a screen without fully engaging, such as watching TV or YouTube. Active screen time involves engagement, such as playing video games, or answering homework questions on a tablet.

When it comes to mental health, they have similar effects, says Rausch. “Passive screen time is a numbing strategy that may result in the user having trouble absorbing or remembering the content compared to active screen time, but the reality is they are both equally dysregulating,” she explains.

The AAP doesn’t offer advice regarding active vs. passive screen time, but the organization notes a difference between screen time a child participates in on their own as opposed to screen time they share with a parent. Participating with your child as they consume screen time can make the experience more positive, according to the AAP. It can promote increased learning and offers a child more human interaction. Plus, you are more likely to place limits on screen time when you are a more active participant.

Should Screen Time Be Limited in School?

Now that Zoom school is a thing of the past, you might assume that virtual learning during the school day would also be retired. And while this is largely the case, many teachers have kept some virtual elements in their teaching.

Dr. Pirayesh has seen this in her practice. “I have noticed that since teachers had to move online, many created audio or video lectures that they are now using in place of actual face-to-face teaching,” she says. Some kids are listening to these lectures in class and others are being shown these lectures as part of their homework.

While Dr. Pirayesh contends that online learning isn’t inferior for all kids, she says that relying on these methods too heavily can have negative consequences. Active learning that involves engaging with other humans is crucial for child development, she emphasizes.

Online learning does have its bonuses; kids with ADHD can benefit from having their work in one place like Google Classroom. Additionally, being able to access lessons remotely can be life-changing for students with chronic illnesses or other disabilities.

What Can Parents Do to Balance Screen Time at Home?

Hearing that screen time should be limited, even when educational, can be distressing for parents. How are we supposed to create healthy boundaries for our kids when screens are a ubiquitous part of their lives—and ours?

According to the experts, it's all about making small changes to reduce risk—and most of all, emphasizing the non-screen time activities that are healthier for your child. “Instead of trying to put limits on screen time, parents should focus on increasing play time and engagement in real life,” says Dr. Pirayesh.

If your child spends a lot of time in front of a screen while in school, make sure that they have as many interactive, tactile activities outside of school as possible. Some ideas include sports, time outside, non-digital games, and art or music. “I would have parents add up all the time their child is spending on these things, and make sure it is more than time on screens,” Dr. Pirayesh suggests.

“Teach kids about how screens make our brains and bodies tired and stressed,” Rausch adds. “When you notice extra screen time is causing emotional or oppositional behavior, tell them what you see and explain they need to take a break from screens.”

Unstructured time can also be a powerful tool for kids, Rausch notes. Giving kids breaks away from screens just to explore and even feel "bored" is invaluable. “If you have the chance, suggest that kids be outside for at least an hour before they have any screen time,” she says. In fact, many of the harms done by screens can be remedied with unstructured free time and access to nature, adds Rausch.

A Word from Verywell

When it comes to screen time, all kids are different and have unique needs. Many kids have adapted to the new ways that screens are used and they are able to take direction when it comes to boundaries. Some kids are more sensitive to the effects of excess screen time, such as sleep issues and mental health issues.

If you have any questions or concerns about the impact screen time is having on your child, or how to manage it, please reach out to a child therapist, their pediatrician, or a healthcare provider.

5 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.
  1. Madigan S, Eirich R, Pador P, et al. Assessment of Changes in Child and Adolescent Screen Time During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics. 2022. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4116

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Beyond Screen Time: Help Your Kids Build Healthy Media Use Habits.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Beyond Screen Time: Help Your Kids Build Healthy Media Use Habits.

  4. Lee SI, Matsumori K, Nishimura K, et al. Melatonin suppression and sleepiness in children exposed to blue-enriched white LED lighting at night. Physiological Report. 2018;6(24):e13942. doi:10.14814/phy2.13942

  5. Children’s Hospital Colorado. The Benefits of Physical Activity and Exercise on Mental Health.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.