Action Alliance for Children is no longer creating new content for Children's Advocate and Defensor de los Niños.
We encourage the continued use and distribution of the magazine and online articles archive.
Permissions guidelines: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License.

What is the Appropriate Amount of Screen Time?

April 28, 2014

Child Watching Video

The good news is that it is stimulating, kids learn a lot and a lot of research suggests they learn well using electronic and digital media, however there are negatives too such as the link to obesity and a difficulty discerning reality from fantasy.

Tessa Jolls


Centers for Media Literacy

From the moment my children get home from school, I am greeted with begging and pleading for electronic stimulation.

It could be my iPhone, our desktop PC, the Wii or the TV – anything will do! They have a constant thirst for electronic media, which I find alarming. While I love the idea of them being computer-savvy in an era where friendly catch-up conversations are dissolving to texting and many relationships are maintained through Facebook, I feel the need to protect my kids’ developing minds. I am constantly wondering, how much is too much and how can I implement some “screen time” boundaries that will stick?

Tessa Jolls, president of Centers for Media Literacy in Malibu says there are both good and bad effects of media exposure.

“The good news is that it is stimulating, kids learn a lot and a lot of research suggests they learn well using electronic and digital media, however there are negatives too such as the link to obesity and a difficulty discerning reality from fantasy,” Jolls says.

We asked a few experts for their advice on how to set limits and allow children a healthy dose of screen time.

Look at quality and quantity

Looking at your child’s media diet should be like examining their food diet, say the experts. You want the highest quality mixed with a healthy portion.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, along with other groups, recommend zero screen time for children 2 and under because it detracts from the healthy stimulation they see in the real world such as navigating objects, people and animal interaction and active physical play, says Tasha Howe, Ph.D, professor of Psychology at Humboldt State University.

For ages 2-18, these organizations recommend no more than two hours of screen media.
“In our house, we talk about development and how as responsible parents, we have to take care of our kids’ brains until they leave home and make their own choices. We have done this since they were babies, so they don’t argue a lot,” Howe says.

Create realistic boundaries

What’s important is to create age-appropriate limits, make media choices you’re comfortable with, and model responsible screen limits for your kids, according to Caroline Knorr, parenting editor with San Francisco-based Common Sense Media.
Here are three guidelines she suggests:

  1. Balance: “Make sure your kid is getting a varied mix of activities that strengthen their bodies, brains, and social skills. When kids are really young, nothing compares to interaction with you and the outdoors. As they get older, it’s good for kids to have some time during the day where they’re idle, unplugged, and maybe even bored – it can help kids develop self-awareness.”
  2. Look for quality programs. “They don’t necessarily need to be academic, but programs that stimulate imagination, abstract thinking, and even cooperative play.”
  3. Enjoy media with your kids. “Sharing the experience with them allows you to know what they’re doing, what questions they have, and also strengthens your bond with your kids.”

Keep your eye on the clock

Pat Cremer, San Carlos mother to four boys ranging in age from 3-9, says she manages screen time in her household by way of the timer.
“I use this timer called “Mark Your Time,” which is a bookmark, book light and timer. My kids can count up or down for how much time they have read. And the amount of time they read can be cashed in for screen time.” (Mark Your Time timer retails for less than $10)
“This reduces a lot of arguments, you can’t argue with a timer,” she says.
Having consequences for ignoring the timer is also helpful, says Howe.
In her household, “If they go over the their time, we deduct five minutes from the next day for every five minutes over for up to 15 minutes,” she says. “But if they go over 15 minutes, they lose their media for two days following. Sometimes they do this because they are at a pivotal point in the game of they just feel defiant.”
She says she lets this be their choice so the parents are not “the bad guys.”

Teach your children about respect for the media
Jolls says that instilling in children that media is just as much a privilege as driving a car can go a long way.
“Media use can have a profound effect on well-being, future, friendships and how a child is being perceived in the world. We as parents need to be engaged with them and continue to teach them values so they make good decisions,” she says. “The business of letting them do whatever they want is like letting them do whatever they want in any other arena – it’s not a good prescription for dealing with big issues.”

Follow Core Standards

Jolls suggests teaching Centers for Media Literacy’s five core concepts and questions of consumers and producers of media:

Authorship: All media messages are constructed
Format: Media messages are constructed using creative language with its own rules
Audience: Different people experience the same media message differently
Content: Media have embedded values and points of view
Purpose: Most media messages are organized to gain profit or power