Set Limits on Kids' Screen Time

Too much screen time is an easy trap for kids and families to fall into, and a dangerous one. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, and other health problems. Plus, screen time can cut into hours better used for sleep, reading, homework, or active play. Of course, most parents agree that limiting screen time is a good idea. It's making it happen that is hard.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) long recommended that kids under two not be exposed to screens at all and that older kids' time be limited to two hours a day or less. But the organization has updated its advice to reflect the widespread use of media by kids and families and now recommends:

  • For babies up to 18 months old: Video chatting only (such as with a parent who is traveling, or a relative who lives far away)
  • Toddlers 18 to 24 months old: High-quality programming that babies and parents view together
  • Preschoolers, 2 to 5 years old: No more than one hour a day of high-quality programming, viewed together
  • Kids ages 6 and up: No specific time limit. Instead, parents should "place consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health." The AAP has an interactive media plan that families can use to set their own limits.

You can also try these 10 options to tame your family's use of screens. You only need a few that work well for your family (and remember, you can—and most likely will—need to make changes as kids grow).

Make Bedrooms Screen-Free

Keep TVs, video game consoles, and computers in common areas, instead of kids' bedrooms. This means kids can't disappear into their rooms for hours at a time. They must share screen time with other family members, and you can keep better tabs on what they're doing and for how long.

Portable devices like tablets and smartphones make this rule very difficult to enforce. At a minimum, require these devices to be charged overnight in common areas, not bedrooms, so they don't interfere with kids' sleep.

Make Screens Off-Limits for Certain Days or Hours

Some families find that it's easiest to just keep screens off on school days, during the summer, or (for example) between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Mealtimes, in particular, should always be screen-free—and that includes Mom and Dad's phones too.

Rules like this keep you from having to make day-by-day or case-by-case decisions on how much screen time is too much. Once kids get over their initial resistance, they'll accept this rule like any other.

Or, you can use technology to fight technology, with tools such as router plug-ins, cable and phone settings, and apps. These allow you to control when and for how long your family's devices are online, and what they access.

Define "Too Much Screen Time" for Your Kids

Determine how much daily or weekly screen time you're comfortable with—say, one hour per day on weekdays and two on weekends, not counting screens needed for schoolwork. Alert your children to this limit and explain why you're enforcing it: Too much sedentary time is truly detrimental to their health. For young children, simply say that spending too much time on screens isn't good for their brains and bodies. Determine the consequences of breaking these rules ahead of time.

Provide Active Alternatives

Encourage kids to take walks, ride bikes, play outside, or play indoor active games instead of using their screens. Playing with them is often a big draw. You might also work with them to create a list of non-screen activities they enjoy, so you can all refer to it when you've had too much screen time.

Use Age-Appropriate Incentives

Customize your screen-limiting strategies to your child's age. For preschoolers, offer distractions. If you typically let your child play on a tablet while you shower or prepare dinner, find an activity she can do alongside you instead (color with washable crayons on the outside of the tub, say, or tear up lettuce for a salad).

For school-aged kids, make screen time a privilege that they earn (see below), and plan frequent playdates so they can't complain of "nothing to do." For teens, reserve your right to remove access to cell phones and the Internet if grades slip or household duties go undone.

Make Them Earn It

Require kids to earn screen time by doing homework, chores, music or sports practice, playing outside, and so on. There are many ways to set this up. You might offer tickets or chips that they have to cash in when they watch TV or play online, for example. Or have them keep track of time spent on chores, and allow the same amount of screen time. Or simply rule that homework always comes first, and then any time leftover can be spent on TV (set an upper limit on that leftover time, though!).

Make Screens Work for You

Turn the TV or tablet on to watch specific shows, then turn it off. Don't leave it on as background noise. Watch with your children so you can monitor the appropriateness of their choices. If you see something you don't like, speak up! Those are great teaching moments. Use a digital video recorder or streaming service to time-shift your viewing, so your watching time matches your schedule. Try a motion-controlled game to up the activity level of video gaming (although these games shouldn't replace other, more vigorous exercise).

Be a Role Model

Remember that what you do sends a much more powerful message than what you say. If you flip on the TV news as soon as you walk in the house in the evening or check your phone at stoplights, it's going to be much harder to enforce rules about your child's screen time.

Give Your Child (Some) Control

Allow your child some choice about how and when he uses a screen, as long as he stays within your family guidelines about time and content. Try to avoid switching off the set in the middle of a show or shutting down his video game mid-level. Give warnings before time is up, and allow kids (especially little ones) the chance to press the "off" button themselves.

Let Kids Be Producers Instead of Consumers

If your child is really into TV, movies, or video games, encourage her to flip to the other side of the screen and be a creator! She could choreograph a dance, stage an epic Nerf battle or tell a fun story of her very own.

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