Managing your child’s screen time during e-learning and beyond

How can we balance digital work and play for kids in an increasingly virtual world? Now remote learning requires many children to spend extra time in front of a device to engage with peers and keep their studies on track.

What counts as “screen time?”

Screen time includes any exposure to an electronic device that has a screen. This includes television, computer, tablet, phone, gaming devices and other electronics (such as music players, light displays or sound machines). Media should work for you and work within your family values and parenting style. When children use media thoughtfully and appropriately, it can enhance daily life.

But when used inappropriately or without thought, media can displace many important activities such as face-to-face interaction, family time, outdoor play, exercise, unplugged downtime and sleep.

What effects does screen time have on a child's health?

Inappropriate or excessive screen time contributes to behavioral problems, bad feeding habits, obesity, delayed development, poor social skills and learning problems. Allowing screen time after 6 p.m. contributes to difficulty sleeping.

Well-designed television programs, such as Sesame Street, can improve cognitive, literacy and social outcomes for children 3 to 5 years of age and continue to create programming that addresses evolving child health and developmental needs like obesity prevention and resilience.

Apps from Sesame Workshop and the Public Broadcasting Service can teach literacy skills to preschoolers. Unfortunately, most apps parents find under the “educational” category in app stores are not effective teaching tools.

Does appropriate screen time change with age?

In 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its recommendations for screen time in children.  The AAP encourages parents to “allow screen time in moderation.” Create media-free zones such as during meal times and two hours before bedtime. Set aside specific days or hours as “media-free” periods. Parents should eliminate background TV, which dramatically reduces conversation or “talk time” with children.

The following guidelines are reasonable for children with no delays or disabilities:

  • Age 0 to 18 months: None
  • Age 18 to 24 months: 30 minutes per day, supervised by a parent
  • Age 2 years and older: 60 minutes per day, supervised by a parent

Children who have a developmental delay, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or intellectual disability (previously called “mental retardation”) should ideally have no leisure screen time.  This is because their brains are far more sensitive to the negative effects of leisure screen time.

Is educational or social screen time different from leisure screen time?

The purpose of screen time matters. A child engaging in a 30-minute conversation with a family member on video chat (FaceTime, Skype, Zoom) can benefit from the experience. A child in his bedroom playing a video game unsupervised for four hours is not engaging directly with people or exercising.

Should parents structure screen time differently while kids are distance learning?

Distance learning is now the norm for children during the COVID-19 pandemic. This form of non-traditional learning is challenging for many families, especially those whose children have challenges such as ADHD and ASD.

When possible, parents should divide the school day into learning periods with breaks. Breaks should include healthful snacks, physical activity, chores and other screen-free activities. Children prescribed medication for ADHD should take it on school days for distance learning.

Parents working from home should try to schedule their child’s screen time during their work meetings. Talk to your child’s teacher to set up weekly check-in sessions by phone, text, Google Classroom, Hangout or Zoom.

What are some clues that a child is spending too much time in front of a screen?

A clear sign is that the child becomes upset or has a tantrum when parents try to limit screen time or deny access to electronics. This suggests that the child is addicted. Clear structure and setting expectation and rules about device usage can help break that addiction.

How can parents encourage positive device habits with their children?

Remove all electronics from your children’s bedrooms. The child’s bedroom is for one thing: sleeping. Charge electronics in a central location, away from bedrooms.

Start each morning with zero screen time. One suggestion is to allow children to earn screen time. Your child can earn five minutes of screen time by doing simple chores: brushing their teeth, bathing, getting dressed, making their bed, putting dirty clothes in the hamper, putting their toys away, helping prepare or clean up after meals or doing their homework.

If your child refuses these tasks, they earn no screen time. This prevents a tug-of-war with parents taking away screen time as a form of punishment.

Another tactic is to strictly structure screen time. When the child starts using a device, set a timer. When the timer goes off, so does the device. Parents can install apps on children’s mobile devices to limit their time.

When you can, try engaging your children in different ways:

  • Go for a family walk.
  • Play a board game together.
  • Read a book with your child.
  • Start a new hobby.

The bottom line for screen time

Children younger than two years need hands-on exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers to develop their cognitive, language, motor and social-emotional skills. They cannot learn from digital media as they do from interacting with caregivers.

For older children, adult interaction during media use is crucial. If possible, the family should sit together to watch TV. Structuring unsupervised screen time with time limits and educational content is the best way to ensure children use devices in positive ways.

Dr. James Phalen is a developmental pediatrician with University Health. If you need routine or specialized care for your children at this time, University Children's Health is ready to tackle your child's care with expertise and compassion, at your convenience.

If you or your children need mental health support during this time, University Health offers comprehensive behavioral health programs and services for adolescents and adults.

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