Everything Parents Need to Know About Screen Time

| 15 min read time

How much do you know about screen time? Whether you’re a new parent or have teens on screens, here’s everything you need to know.

Ever thought about how many devices you have? Phones, computers, gaming systems, TVs—all that time spent on devices is called “screen time,” and it adds up. Fast.

...But don't panic. You can learn what screen time is and how to handle it in a healthy way for your family.

What is Screen Time and Why Does it Matter?

Have you ever taken a look at how many devices your family has? A kid getting a smartphone is akin to getting a car. TVs now come with built-in streaming services. Computers and digital devices dominate day-to-day life through school and work. Kids and adults on average now spend more time online than they spend time outside. All this can be attributed to a simple term: screen time.

What does screen time mean?

Screen time is a term used to describe sedentary activity that happens in front of a screen. Screen time accounts for almost all time spent in front of a screen, whether it’s a mobile device, computer screen for work, or time spent watching movies or playing video games.

Why care about screen time?

The average time spent on screens and devices has been steadily trending upwards for years, as new devices are released regularly and become more and more accessible. There is still a lot of debate around whether or not screen time adversely affects lives, relationships, or personal development, but one thing is for sure: screen time is here, and it’s not going away anytime soon. What we can do is start looking at what screen time is, the positives and negatives of it, and strategies to maintain a healthy balance between screen time and other things in life.

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What are the Effects of Screen Time?

Screen time is a recent phenomena and its effects are still being studied by experts. While it’s a vast, complicated field, screen time has already been shown to have adverse effects on the mind and tends to manifest in different ways at different ages. Its effects can be broken down into categories by Mental, Physical, and Emotional effects.

Mental

While more studies are being released on a regular basis, a few things can already be associated with screen time use, such as poor sleep patterns, problems paying attention, and addictive behavior. It’s important to keep in mind that not all screen time is bad, yet overuse can lead to other problems.

Physical

It goes without saying that any time spent on screens is likely not spent being physically active. Most games, mobile or console, require very little in the way of physical activity and can eat into valuable exercise or outdoor time. Passive consumption can lead to poor habits especially when it comes to diet and exercise. And exposure to screens especially before bed, late at night, or even in the middle of the night can mess with circadian rhythms and lead to poor sleep quality and habits, which bleeds into other parts of life.

Emotional

Along with mental and physical, there is also an emotional toll associated with screen time use. Overexposure to screen time, digital devices, and time spent online has been linked to anxiety disorders, trouble focusing, and even depression. Social interactions IRL can be harder and also lead to withdrawal from friends and family. In rarer cases, kids and adults alike can develop dependencies or addictions to screens and have a tough time overcoming these obstacles, such as having trouble disconnecting from social media.

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How Many hours of Screen Time is Healthy

While there is a lot of debate around how much is the right amount of screen time, limits will be different for everyone, and may change over time. Experts tend to agree that the less screen time a person, kid, or family gets, the better.

Kids (0-8)

It’s recommended that younger kids should have the most limited access to screens and devices and should be the most carefully watched over. Developing good screen time habits early on is important for kids at younger ages, as they might not fully understand what it is they see. The recommended number of screen time hours for young children is generally no more than two per day.

Tweens (9-12)

As kids get a little older, introducing new rules with access to screen time should be done hand-in-hand. While it’s generally advised not to allow much more screen time than younger kids, adding different apps to the regular mix might occur around this time, as well as a (very) slow introduction to expanded rules around screen time. This is the perfect time to start getting tweens prepared for stricter guidelines and conversations around what apps are okay and what might be off the table—like social media, video games, and so on.

Teens (13-18)

Getting a smartphone is a rite of passage for teens now, and the first thing many of them do is download the latest social media app and start talking with friends. While this can be good for social development, too much screen time can take its toll on teens and have a negative emotional effect. It can be harder to rein in screen time use for teens, it’s recommended that they spend no more than 3 hours a day on screens—unless they have to be online for school. It’s up to parents to decide how to manage screen time, but one thing is for sure: teens still need to have limits on their screen time use as well.

Adults

Most adults spend an average 11 hours a day in front of screens. You read that right, 11 hours. This includes time spent in front of a screen at work, during breaks on smartphones, and even at home. That’s why it’s imperative for parents to try and do their best to set good examples for their kids—and also take care of themselves and make sure they aren’t overusing online devices as well.

The Pros and Cons of Screen Time

Not all screen time is bad, as it has many benefits to making day-to-day life more convenient and fun. Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons of screen time use.

Pros

Education
Screen time is increasingly being used for education. While traditional avenues exist, such as TV shows like Sesame Street, there are kid-oriented games, activities, and apps that help increase brain function and encourage learning. For older kids, school-issued Chromebooks and Zoom classes are becoming commonplace. While all these can be useful, it's important to remember that it is still screen time and therefore should be taken into account as total time spent on digital or online-connected devices.

Long distance connections/social interactions
Who doesn’t love FaceTiming with grandma and grandpa? Devices such as phones and computers help keep us in touch with loved ones, far away friends, or even making some new connections, like a digital version of being pen pals!

Entertainment
This one is pretty obvious, right? Devices are perfect to take your mind off things for an hour or two. Games, apps, shows, movies, and more—everything is right there at the click of a button.

Cons

Screen Addiction
While screens have fundamentally changed day to day life and provide new avenues for learning, social interaction, and entertainment, they also run the risk of becoming addictive. Kids and adults alike can develop “screen addiction” and end up spending several hours of the day on digital devices. Dr. David Greenfield of the Center of Internet Addiction often recommends strategies such as setting time limits and taking frequent breaks from screens to help combat addiction.

Cyberbullying
One of the darker undersides of social media is cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is a huge problem across several platforms and can become a screen time problem. Victims of cyberbullying can become overwhelmed and spend too much time on screens and devices. While kids and teenagers are especially susceptible to cyberbullying, many adults also experience cyberbullying in one form or another, with as many as 1 in 3 people claiming to have been bullied online at one point in their life.

Physical health risks
An overabundance of screen time can lead to health problems such as poor sleep patterns, less energy, and less time spent exercising or getting outside. Strategies to help mindfully balance screen time, like setting family rules on when devices are and aren’t allowed, can help set kids and parents up for screen time success.

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Warning Signs and How to Monitor (and Limit!) Screen Time

Online devices and apps are programmed to give kids, teens, and adults a shot of excitement every time they interact with them. Apps are purposefully engineered to draw users in and keep them there, similar to the way gambling works. The attractive qualities of these apps and devices are exactly why it's even more important to keep an eye on kids who have direct access to them.

Keeping an eye out for overuse or addictive behavior is the #1 thing parents can do to help regain control over screen time. Already got kids on devices? That’s okay! Just getting a device for the first time for your kid, teen, or tween? No matter what phase you're in, there are several things you want to look out for with kids and device use.

Trouble focusing. An easy tell-tale sign is when kids start to have trouble focusing. Since smartphones, video games, and social media are all programmed for instant gratification, they are also fast and easily consumable. This can manifest itself offline, even physically, as kids being fidgety or unable to sit for long periods of time. If they can’t sit and focus on homework, chores, or even more passive activities like reading, this may be a sign of too much screen time.

Irritable. Sometimes this is just a normal part of life—but could it be too much screen time? If your kids use smartphones, PCs, or video game consoles like PlayStation or Xbox, it’s suggested to monitor their time spent on each device. Do they spend more than an hour a day on each device? Is it difficult to get them to put the devices down, even for chores or family gatherings like dinner? If so, this could be another sign of too much screen time.

Withdrawal. This can be even tricker. Sometimes kids or teens just need a little alone time, but how much is too much? If a kid seems to be talking less, coming out of their room less, or less engaged than they have been in the past, it’s good to check in. This could be that they are spending too much time on screens playing games, or as mentioned earlier, they could be withdrawing from activities due to something like cyberbullying.

Most important: check in! Since screens have become more and more prevalent in households, it’s good to start checking in with kids frequently about what they’re doing online. Also make sure to keep up with the latest games and apps and always know what your kids are using.


Monitoring Screen Time

Monitoring screen time can seem like a huge task, but fortunately, there are strategies you can employ to help ease the burden. No matter where you are in terms of your family’s screen time and digital device use, there’s no bad time to start talking, planning, and enacting screen time rules. Keep in mind that screen time use will be different for various ages and family members. Naturally, parents may have higher screen time use—maybe due to a job or something else. Teenagers might have to use screens for school—that’s okay too. But the first step to successful screen time management is talking about it. Here’s what some of those conversations might look like.

Getting on the Same Page: Parents
Parenting takes a village. So when it comes time to talking about screen time, it’s never too early to talk to your partner—or anybody else who helps raise your kids, like grandparents, friends, or even the babysitter—about screen time.

Make time to talk
Partners who set aside time to talk can establish a baseline. Before taking rules to the rest of the family, it’s best to make sure everyone is in agreement about what the rules will look like. How much time, where and when screens will be allowed, and how they will be monitored are good subjects to tackle.

Respect differences
Not all screen time is created equal. Does the computer count if it’s for work or school? How much screen time does a 14 year old get as compared to a 7 year old? How much extra screen time do kids get as a reward for completing chores or getting good grades, if at all?

Check in
Keep all lines of communication open when it comes to screen time. The rules likely won’t be the same forever.

Getting on the Same Page: Families
Once parents are on the same page, it’s time to tackle the real deal: the rest of the family. This can be done as a family meeting or one-on-one conversations—whatever works best will likely be different from family to family. There are different strategies on how to approach it. Tackling screen time might not happen overnight, but the best thing to do is take it in steps.

Make a plan
This starts from the top—by this point, parents should have the ground rules laid out and agreed upon before taking it to the rest of the family.

Have a family meeting
Gather everyone to talk about screen time. This conversation may be easier or harder depending on how old the kids are and how much device access they have had already. Once everyone is together, parents should lay out the plan they have decided upon—but also be sure to listen to, and possibly even include, requests or suggestions made by kids. Open communication is key to a successful screen time talk, but sometimes parents will have to stand firm on what they’ve decided.

Stick to the plan
Kids will always push the boundaries on screen time, so consistency is key. Evasion is real—kids will likely try and get around whatever measures parents put in place to monitor or limit screen time. Ensure that everyone is doing what they agreed to. No cheating!

Track progress
The best way to show results is to track progress. Keeping everyone up to date on how they’re doing will build a sense of camaraderie around success. Remember: screen time management is a marathon, not a sprint.

Designate “Screen-Free” Times and Areas
One useful strategy to manage screen time is to have designated “screen-free” places and times in the household. By limiting screens to certain rooms and places, families can have better boundaries—and more transparency—when it comes to screens.

Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, has some recommendations regarding times and places for digital devices.

The Dinner Table
This one is a slam dunk: no phones at the table. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner—when it’s time to eat, it’s time for phones to be put away.

Bedrooms
Bedrooms are better when they’re screen free. Have kids leave phones or tablets outside the bedroom so it’s a screen-free sanctuary.

Bedtime
No phones an hour prior to bedtime. Since screens can be disruptive to sleep patterns, it’s important for kids (and adults) to start winding down an hour before bed, meaning no phones, TV, or tablets.

Always keep the conversation going around screen time. Be firm but adaptable and revisit the rules every so often—as technology continues to change, so might the rules.

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Screen Time Alternatives

Does it sometimes feel like screens rule the entire house? They don’t have to. While screen time is on the rise in many households, there are lots of offline options still available for families and individuals alike. Here are some ideas to keep kids off screens and active—mentally and physically:

Books

Kids

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Eric Carle
  • Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak
  • The Giving Tree - Shel Silverstein

Tweens

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon - Kelly Barnhill
  • Hatchet - Gary Paulsen
  • The Lion, the With, and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis

Teens

  • Ready Player One - Ernest Cline
  • The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas
  • The Giver - Lois Lowry

Activities

  • Make your own sundae buffet

  • Rummage the closets for an impromptu fashion show

  • Host an outdoor movie night

  • Learn plant identification

  • Start a garden—outdoors or in a windowsill

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Set Your Family Up for Screen Time Success

Screen time management isn’t something that magically happens overnight—but it can be achieved through discipline, consistency, and good planning. Involving the whole family in the process can help make the battle a little easier while also bringing everyone together and forming a tighter bond.

Circle Home Plus can help get your family’s device use and screen time management under control. With a powerful suite of tools in a simple-to-use app, Circle is the easiest way to manage screen time on all Wi-Fi and mobile devices. From smartphones and tablets to TVs and video game consoles, Circle’s parental control device and app lets parents set limits and filter content—all from one app.

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