Screen Time

12/3/2021 | Michael DiBartola, MD, FAAP

The use of screen time among teens and youth continues to rise. Studies are finding teens spend nearly 7 hours on screens per day (not including schoolwork). Meanwhile, as screens become more ubiquitous in toys and education, toddlers are learning to manipulate screens at a young age. So, when is it okay to start screen time for our children? How much screen time should they have? What type of screens should they use, and what should they watch? While below is not and exhaustive list, it should provide some guidance to these questions.


For Toddlers and Children:

Avoid using screens as pacifiers, babysitters, or to stop tantrums

I’m a parent of three (Ages 7.5, 5, and 2.5) and we’ve ALL been here! I feel more strongly about not using them as pacifiers and to stop tantrums. When we do this, it teaches children that when they are frightened, sad, or upset, the best way to cope, or calm down is to interact with a digital world.

I do think it can be okay to use screens as “babysitters” in certain situations including:

  • Airplanes and car travel.
  • BUT this should be limited, and we should do our best to adhere to additional guidance laid out here.


No screen time under the age of 24 months

  • This is a recommendation made by both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization.
  • Most studies have found screen time at these ages may even have a negative impact on a child’s development.
  • This is likely related to what screen time replaces such as one on one play with a parent or siblings.
  • One exception would be video chatting with family while supervised by a parent.


Limit screen time in children 2 to 5 years of age to an hour or less a day

Not all screen time is created equal. Here’s why:

  • Several studies have shown probable educational benefit such as Sesame Street or Super Why.
  • Studies show that children learn more from screens when viewed with their parents, especially if discussed afterwards.


When should I buy my kid a phone?

The longer we can hold off on allowing our children to have an individual screen such as an iPhone, the better.

However, there is likely a point at which the exclusion from digital socialization and the added safety of our ability to easily communicate with our children outweighs the risks. This likely occurs somewhere between 7th to 9th grade, but this decision should be made on an individual basis. Here’s why:

  • Some tweens may be more mature and ready than a 15-year-old.
  • The more clear-cut expectations and boundaries you set up ahead of time, the less fights you will have later.

Our kids will encounter phones and social media, so we do want to help teach them boundaries and appropriate use.


For Adolescents:

Start with clear guidance and boundaries

Sample agreements can be found at www.commonsensemedia.org


No screens right before bedtime

Phones should be plugged in and charging 30 min before winding down:

  • Preferably NOT in your teen’s room.
  • Savvy parents may even use Apps to turn off the internet or lock phones after a certain period of time.


No screens during mealtimes

  • Again, think of what this replaces, face to face conversation.


The firmest negative associations between screens and teens are with obesity and depressive symptoms

The more screen time, the more likely they are to become obese or develop depressive symptoms because:

  • Many studies are finding associations.
  • Not yet clear causation. Many ongoing studies looking into this right now.
  • Remember, most teens are using their screens for seven hours a day outside of school.
  • Some of this may stem from screen use supplanting exercise.


It is important to model appropriate screen use for our adolescents

  • Adolescents often don’t “listen” to our advice as parents but be assured they are watching our behavior.
  • We should be adhering to the same boundaries such as charging in a communal area, not right by our beds and putting them away during family mealtime.


Talk to your adolescent about social media use

Educate yourself on the different platforms out there: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, tiktok, Snapchat, twitch, etc. because:

  • These platforms are where adolescents form unrealistic expectations of themselves.
  • This is where cyberbullying is rampant.
  • www.commonsensemedia.org has great resources for parents.


No adolescent needs a TV or videogame console in their room

  • Videogame addiction is a real problem.



As a pediatrician, the most common question I get asked is, “Well, what do you do with YOUR kids?” As I mentioned above, we have 3 children, 7.5, 5, and 2.5. None of my children have their own screen. No iPod, no iPad, no old iPhone without internet. No TVs in their rooms. But of course, they get screen time. During the week, they get one 20-30 min show after their quiet time. My older two alternate who picks. They get 2 shows on Saturday. Once a week we do movie day/night instead, and we all alternate picks (our last two movies were “Elf,” and “Home Alone.”) Occasionally, my oldest will pick videogames instead of a show, and we play together on the Switch. Rules go out the window on long car rides and airplanes (but we always know what they’re watching). I don’t have teenagers, and I’m dreading the constant negotiations around screens when we get there.

Have grace for yourself as a parent. No one gives us a manual that works every time. Continue to educate yourself and revisit the evidence and guidance often. Happy holidays!


Sources and Resources:

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