How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?

Children on couch playing video games

How much screen time is bad? I think about this question every time that I walk through the house and see one of my children’s faces lit by the glow of an iPad or the TV.

I know I am not alone in my concern over screen time. The screen time question is the most frequently asked question by parents and families in my sessions and workshops.

Especially during the pandemic, where computer usage has become required for all ages, the importance of understanding media usage for our children is critical.

But before I tell you what I tell those parents, I need to confess something.

I hate screen time.

I dislike video games. I don’t like watching TV. Movies are long and I get tired. I can’t think of interesting things to Google. I am so bad at social media that when my friends post updates, they immediately text it to me directly.

I envisioned my children would share my 80s-tastic, rather-be-outside, dislike-of-screen-time personality.

But let me tell you. My children have fallen EXTREMELY far from my tree.

My kids love video games, television shows, movies, Facetime, texting, and YouTube. Video games. More video games. I think know my kids will clean the entire house if it involves getting screen time (Yes, I use this to my advantage.).

Developing a media-positive mindset has been hard for me. But over time, I have come to view screen time like pull-ups. Some people choose to spend their time doing pull-ups; I choose to not do pull-ups. Some people like screen time; I do not.

But even if I am not into it personally, it’s okay if my kids love screen time. My job as a parent is to help my kids develop healthy, positive media habits. It’s part of the job description for anybody parenting in the modern era.

The gold standard for guidance around screen time comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics. They recommend no screen time before the age of 2. After 2, the recommendation is to limit screen time to 2 hours a day.

Yes, it is a somewhat arbitrary recommendation. It is based on professionals making the best guess based on an ever-changing body of scientific evidence. Is there a magical neurological and social change that happens on a child’s 2nd birthday that makes screen time okay? Nope. Is there something sinister that happens if your child has 2 hours and 1 minute a single day? No, of course not. But we need to have some boundary and the best guess of the scientific community is the 2 years/2 hours rule.

When parents ask me the “How much screen time is bad?” question, I always reply, “That depends. What is the point of your child’s screen time?”

The sooner you look at the reason behind your child’s screen time, the sooner you will know if your child’s screen time is too much. The general rule of limiting screen time to under 2 hours a day is a good one. But there is not necessarily a problem with more than 2 hours if it’s not happening every day, if the purpose of that screen time is positive, and if the screen time doesn’t have any bad implications for your child’s development.

Positive screen time is when the screen time is useful – it serves a purpose. For example, screen time can help your child complete schoolwork, and as early as 2nd grade, screen time may be required to complete assignments. Daniel Tiger episodes may help your child learn important socio-emotional lessons (If you have to go potty STOP and go right away…) Video chat or texting can help your child make and form social relationships; it can also teach them important skills for communicating via text, email, phone, or video. Media use can provide a chance for social connection as well as learning about winning and losing if your child plays games with peers. Playing hard games or losing provide opportunities for your child to learn to cope with frustration. A few minutes of screen time can help your child relax after a long day or even change their mood for the better on a bad day. Screen time is an awesome opportunity for family time. Playing video games or watching movies with your kids is a great foundation for building quality time and strong family relationships. Knowledge of games, shows, movies, gives your child something to talk about with friends – not unlike the water-cooler talk that adults engage in at the office about popular shows. There are lots of other possible positive outcomes of screen time, but above all, screen time can be fun for your kid.

But screen time can also have some dark sides. Any amount of screen time has potential to be “bad” media. There are a few warning signs that media is a problem for your child and requires parent intervention. First, screen time is bad if is being consistently used as an escape tool so your child can avoid real-world problems. Second, screen time is a problem if it is taking away from other important activities for your child, especially physical activity, getting schoolwork completed, or socializing with family and friends in real life. Third, screen time is bad if the screen time is antisocial or asocial. Deviant, non-mainstreamed media can indicate mental health problems and parents need to step-in immediately. Finally, screen time is concerning if your child is obsessed or addicted to it. This means that your child can only talk or focus on the screen time and cannot function without it.

Is it possible to have all good screen time, all the time? Nope. It’s just not. And that’s not necessarily a negative thing. Problematic screen time is also an opportunity to discuss why your child’s media usage is concerning. Talking about these concerns can help your child develop skills for self-evaluation and critical thinking about their own media usage. For instance, pointing out that your child only talks about Roblox or Fortnite will help them realize that they need to expand their topics if they want to be a good conversationalist.

So, at the end of the day, where do we end up as parents?

Our goal as parents should be to limit media exposure completely until age 2, and after that, to work hard to limit screen time to 2 hours, most days.

But if the media is mostly positive and no “bad” media warning bells are ringing, let it go.

Part of being wise about screen time is accepting the reality of the situation. There will be moments in our parenting journey when we are doing a great job with screen time, wielding media as a weapon for positive outcomes in our children. There will also be big moments when we realize our child is having too much “bad” screen time – and we need to pull it all back and reset. (There will also be moments when we put on a movie for the kids so that we can clean the kitchen, take a shower, or work-out. That’s okay, too.)

Above all, work on being reasonable about your child’s media usage. If your child is using a computer at school and for schoolwork, that shouldn’t preclude them getting to do fun media later, even if it adds up to more than 2 hours. Why? Because if you start counting schoolwork towards screen time, you are setting your kid up to start resenting school.

As a self-described media-hater, recognizing the good in screen time is critical for me to view my child’s media usage in a positive light. The same is true for you.

And even though I really don’t understand the appeal of Among Us and still find Minecraft YouTubers incredibly annoying, I love hanging out with my family on the couch and spending time together. So as much as the screen time makes me nuts, I am willing to put up with it to stay connected and gain insight into my kids’ worlds.

How much screen time is bad for your child is an impossible question to answer until you understand why your child is engaging in that screen time. But if we minimize screen time as much as possible, stay observant, and communicate openly with our kids about our rules and expectations, there is more potential for screen time to do good than bad.

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