How much screen time is reasonable for children?


Dear Adele,

We are parents of young children and seek advice concerning what is a reasonable amount of screen time for kids. We see many of our friends and relatives allowing their children to spend copious hours a day in front of screens? We sometimes wonder what has happened to outdoor free play, biking, soccer and softball, pastimes such as puzzles, crafts and reading books, and good old ‘hanging out’ with laughter and conversation? What are your ideas on this, Adele?

Screen Adverse Adults


Dear Screen Adverse Adults,

You and your children have been fortunate to be born during a period of time when digital media is available to you. That includes television, internet, smart devices, computers, video games etc. They can be extremely educational and teach many things. Lots of people also find them enjoyable and have fun entertaining themselves on devices. Creative manufacturers have marketed all kinds of programs for children as young as a few months old, to apps suitable for any age group. There are so many attractive programs and devices that the average youngster’s free time could be totally taken up using devices.

While much can be learned on devices there definitely is a downside to consider. According to Lucile Packard of Stanford Children’s Hospital, television often portrays programs with violence which can result in imitation or fearfulness. It frequently shows programs involving alcohol, drugs, sexuality or smoking which parents may prefer their child not to see before he/she is emotionally ready. As well, commercials on children’s programming are regularly food related and may encourage poor eating habits. Finally, the time spent in watching shows and playing on devices distracts children from better activities for physical and social development such as exercise, playing, reading, studying and games.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that exposure to digital media should be limited. The general consensus is that children under two years of age should have no screen time at all. According to “screen viewing before age 18 months has lasting negative effects on children’s language development reading skills and short-term memory.” It can also create sleep and attention problems. Children 2 to 5 years of age should have no more than one hour per day of screen time on digital media and the Academy recommends that parents prioritize creative, unplugged play time for infants and toddlers. Parents should monitor children over six, for a balance between screen time, school, study, exercise, social contacts and sleep. Dr. Jenny Radesky recommends parents teach their school-aged children and teenagers how to use digital devices as tools to learn, connect, and create, not as mindless time fillers.

Penfield Building Blocks also concurs that children under two should not be exposed to screens because that is a period of rapid brain development and the best learning occurs through exploring, playing and interacting with other humans. Such a choice encourages healthier social and physical development.

 Dr. David Ludwig of the Child Obesity Centre says that screen watching can increase a child’s propensity towards obesity because physical activity is displaced. As well, there is brainwashing about food in that the average child watches about 10,000 food commercials per year. Finally, a lot of children are involved in unconscious over-eating while sitting and watching devices Dr. Ludwig suggests families turn off the television and devices during mealtime, in particular.

According to 40 per cent of three-month-old infants are regularly watching television, DVDs and videos. Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia reports that most American children watch about three hours a day of television and when added to other screen time are totaling 5 to 7 hours a day in front of screens.

An interesting article by Hayley Middlebrook, CNN health, entitled ‘New screen time rules for kids, by doctors’ suggests parents develop a ‘Family Media Plan’. Some of the ideas in that article are summarized below:

  • Create tech free zones both in time and space. Turn off the television when it is not being watched because it interferes with relationships.
  • Keep computers in the public part of the house.
  • Have a curfew time for shutdown of all media in the home, for the night. Park devices in the kitchen and allow no screens in the bedrooms.
  • Avoid screens for children under two years of age and substitute unstructured play and human interactions.
  • Limit screen time for toddlers and preschoolers to one hour per day.
  • Co-view devices with kids and discuss the values depicted in the programs.
  • Choose and record educational programs which teach values of empathy and tolerance. Avoid inappropriate programs which depict drugs, smoking, violence, and sexuality.
  • Monitor social media sites.
  • Allow no screen time at meals and bedtime.
  • Do not use television as a babysitter or an emotional pacifier.
  • Educate older children and teenagers about cyber bullying and the appropriateness of content that is shared online.
  • Set screen time limits for kids over six and encourage playtime activities of all kinds.
  • Reward good behaviour with other than screen time.
  • Ensure that adults are good role models.

Hopefully I have answered your question Screen Adverse Adults. I will close with a few quotations which might serve to inspire you:

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.— Groucho Marx

We’ve become so focused on that tiny screen that we forget the big picture- the people right in front of us.” — Regina Brett

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,

Go throw your TV set away,

And in its place, you can install,

A lovely book shelf on the wall.” — Roald Dahl

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.