How Much Screentime is Too Much? Here's What the Experts Say

kidsvideogamesScreen time for kids has increased many-fold since the closing of schools due to COVID-19 in March of 2020. Screens have become necessary for schooling, but one of the biggest discussion points among parents is the additional time their kids are spending online for social interaction or gaming.

News headlines warn that screen time is up 500% among kids and that myopia will be the next public health problem due to screen time. But some have come to the conclusion that it’s a throwaway year and have decided to let their kids use their devices at will. Should it be a concern? How much screen time is too much screen time and what techniques can parents effectively use to cut back screen time?

At the beginning of the pandemic, many parents encouraged screen time so kids could keep in touch with friends through gaming and face time. It helped keep kids busy while parents got used to working at home. “Gaming with friends seemed like such a safer option than getting together in person,” said a mom of three boys. “But it began as an hour of Fortnight together and evolved into hours a day and wanting to be on with their friends all weekend long.” She went on to explain that once the warmer weather hit, she expected her kids to want to see their friends outside instead of gaming with them inside, but it became a constant fight to get them to go outside or do much of anything else.

According to the Child Mind Institute, it’s a good idea to ask yourself the following questions, to make a determination based on your family’s circumstances of how much screen time is too much.

-Is my child getting enough sleep or is screen time affecting this?
-Is my child still spending quality time with family?
-Is my child getting daily exercise?
-Is my child keeping up with schoolwork and homework?
-Do they interact with friends and/or family while on screens?

If you answered “no” more than “yes,” it may be time to place limits on screens.

I know that I have had to repeatedly remove devices from my kids’ grips and have found other devices hidden in closets and under beds. Recently I found my son’s phone stashed in his room in an alarmed box he wired together at Camp Invention.

Are screens affecting your familial relationships? Does your child get angry when they come off a screen? Do they seem irritable and cranky when they need to stop gaming or their time limit on Tik Tok has come to a close?

Studies have shown that screen time can cause extended release of dopamine in the brain, leading to lack of impulse control. A piece published in Journal of the International Child Neurology Association by Dr. Aric Sigman caught a lot of attention recently. 

In it, he writes, “‘Addiction’ is a term increasingly used to describe the growing number of children engaging in a variety of different screen activities in a dependent, problematic manner.” He defines screen addiction the following ways:

• Preoccupation
• Withdrawal symptoms
• Increasing tolerance
• Failure to reduce or stop screen activities
• Loss of outside interests
• Continuation despite negative consequences
• Lying about extent of use
• Use to escape adverse moods

Dr. Pam Hurst-Della Pietra, Founder and President of Children and Screens at the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development linked screen addiction or excessive screen time to lack of sleep, being reclusive and irritability. These are all signs that your child needs an adult to intervene and limit screen time. Some describe it like the “cry it out” technique used on babies to get them to sleep through the night. The first few times you limit the device the kid may freak out, but once you set and solidify boundaries and hold your ground, it will get progressively easier.

A mom from Edgemont said her kids’ screen time increased during the pandemic, “…as necessitated by school demands, but the overflow into free-time use has also increased.” I asked her if it was for the better (e.g. she could get work done, her kids were happy) or for the worse (e.g. worse overall behavior, lack of interpersonal relationships) and she thinks it is definitely for the worse, including for their postures. She has limits on screen time/gaming during the week and it’s been successful as they don’t ask for their devices. Her secret? “I confiscate them completely. Out of sight, out of mind.” Where she struggles, however, is during the weekends and during breaks. “It’s been hard keeping them off their devices and getting them outside for physical activity. Their moods change and they want to stay on way past their limits. They chip away at me and after working all week, I cave. And much more than before COVID. It’s quick, built-in entertainment, but I think it provides little value beyond that.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and most child health experts agree that it’s more important than ever to set limits for time on screens. The AAP recommends no screen time at all for kids under 2 years of age other than face timing family and friends.

Other guidance is as follows:

-Don’t make screens totally off limits

-Stay on course- set day and time limits and stick with it
-Model healthy screen use (e.g. no screens while eating)
-Consider bonus time for good behavior
-Brainstorm off-screen activities your child likes and remind child of this when screen time has ended or it’s a non-screen time
-Focus on creating a balance between screens and the real world
-No screens one hour before bedtime
-Take breaks every 20 minutes so child can focus on something further away

Speaking of eyesight and focusing, myopia, or near-sightedness, does not have strong data correlating it with screen time even though it has made some headlines. However, some people do experience blurriness, eye fatigue or dry eyes after being on a screen for a long period of time.

What’s the bottom line? If you’re feeling guilty and think your kids are on screens too much, make an effort to revamp your guidelines. Be clear, concise and consistent with these rules. If you think your child has a true addiction and their screen time affects relationships within the family, speak to your pediatrician for guidance.

The alternative? Try it my way. Just grab the ipads, laptops, phones and chromebooks and lock them in a closet while mumbling something like, “See if you’ll EVER get these back!”