When you were a kid, did you camp out on the couch with your siblings and fight over what show you’d watch on the family TV? Today, your kids have decidedly fewer limits when it comes to controlling a screen. They can watch many at once, and carry them wherever they go.
As amazing as the technology is, your child can benefit from less time with it. Outside of homework, school-aged kids should spend no more than an hour or two with a screen every day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“There are a lot of potential harmful effects of screen time on kids, from newborns up to late adolescents and even young adults,” says Craig Anderson, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University.
When kids watch a lot of fast-paced shows that switch quickly from scene to scene, they may later have trouble when they need to focus in the classroom, Anderson says.
Kids who spend too much time in front of a screen can have other problems, too, like too little sleep or too much weight gain, says David Hill, MD, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media.
Plus, he says, kids who watch TV and play video games for hours each day may miss out on face-to-face opportunities to learn, time to play outside, and connections with friends. “Our greatest question should be, ‘What is this screen time displacing?’” he says.
How to Make the Cut
With screens everywhere, it may seem even harder to cut down on a child’s time with them. But limits are worth it. Try these tips to pry them off those devices — at least, for a little while.
1. Don’t give your kids their own tablet or smartphone. “Interact with your children. Do that instead of handing them an electronic device,” says Steven Gortmaker, PhD, professor of the practice of health sociology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
2. Make computers and TVs stay in the shared spaces of your home. When your kids use screens in the kitchen or living room, it’s easier to keep an eye on the shows they watch, the games they play, and the websites they’re on.
3. Add tech-free time to your family’s schedule. “At any age, kids should know there are specific times when screens stay off, like at meals and before bed,” Hill says. Even better, set aside time every week when the family does something fun together — no devices allowed.
4. Watch how often you use your own devices. If you keep your face buried in your phone, your kids won’t see a good reason why they should get off their screens. Plus, those devices affect the time you spend with your children. Researchers who studied families at fast-food restaurants noticed parents were often more focused on their smartphones than on the children at the table.
5. Make limits a regular part of screen use. When the rules are clear and consistent, you can avoid daily battles when you tell the kids it’s time to turn off the TV, computer, or phone.
6. Be ready to explain different screen-time limits. After your kids have watched hours of TV at a friend’s house, they may wonder why your rules are different. “These are opportunities to have conversations with your kids about what your family’s values are,” Anderson says.
7. Help your kids find other ways to have fun. “If a child has nothing to do but stare at a screen, then we should not be surprised when that is what he or she does,” Hill says. Keep other options — art supplies, books, Frisbees, and bikes — around and ready when your kids claim there’s nothing else to do.
8. Make tech work for you. Use programs and apps that you can set to turn off computers, tablets, and smartphones after a given amount of time.
9. Adjust screen-time limits as your child gets older. “For middle-schoolers and teens, parents may want to involve them more in the decision-making process,” Hill says. You could talk with them about how much screen time the whole family should get. Once you’ve settled on a plan, stick to it.
10. Consider donating or recycling your old electronics. “Usually households have a lot of devices, and they get left over and moved to other places,” Gortmaker says. “It’s good to do an inventory and see if you just can’t limit the technology.”