According to a 2018 survey from Common Sense Media, 89% of teenagers reported having a smartphone, and 70% said that they use social media at multiple points throughout the day. A 2016 study from Influence Central indicated that the average age that children get their first phone is 10.3 years old. Screens and technology have become intertwined with children’s lives. While these new devices and platforms have provided ample opportunity to discover new information, share ideas and explore new cultures, kids’ increased emphasis and reliance on such technology has also raised concerns among parents and educators. Some practitioners and researchers believe too much screen time may reduce a child’s attention span; other studies have indicated that increased use of smartphones and digital devices is being linked to poor physical health outcomes, such as obesity, as well as reduced performance in schools.
There isn’t a definitive answer regarding how much screen time is too much for kids, as every child’s health needs are different. However, there are tools and resources that can assist parents, educators and health practitioners, to ensure that children reap the greatest benefit from their screen time.
Kids’ Screen Time: Facts and Statistics
The Common Sense Media report indicated that among 41% of teenagers, Snapchat is the most often used social media platform, followed by Instagram with 22% and Facebook with 15%. The same report indicated that among respondents, texting is a more popular form of communication than in-person conversations.
For social media and smartphone use, there appear to be both positive and negative effects on teens. According to the Common Sense Media report, more than half the teenage respondents indicated that social media distracts them from homework and social situations, while 42% stated that social media has reduced the amount of time they spend with friends in real life. However, the report states that among respondents, social media has enabled them to feel less lonely, more confident and better about themselves.
While some believe that an increase in kids’ screen time is associated with poor academic performance, this isn’t necessarily the case. A September 2019 study from JAMA Pediatrics that focused on child screen time and its relationship with academic performance noted that there isn’t a strong association between individual devices/platforms and their effect on a student’s grades and performance in school. For example, determining whether screen time is “bad” or “good” for a child’s or teenager’s academic performance can depend on age, type of device or screen used (e.g., mobile phone, tablet, desktop PC), and other factors. However, the study did note that the two types of screen time most associated with poor academic performance were video games and television.
Historically, there’s been a strong association between screen time and obesity in children. According to a November 2017 report published in Pediatrics:
Current evidence suggests that screen media exposure leads to obesity in children and adolescents through increased eating while viewing; exposure to high-calorie, low-nutrient food and beverage marketing that influences children’s preferences, purchase requests and consumption habits; and reduced sleep duration.
Teenagers who spend multiple hours on their cellphones each day can eat more food during their screen time use, be less aware of healthy food choices, spend less time exercising and sleep less, all factors that can contribute to obesity and poorer health outcomes.
Screen Time Recommendations
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong amount of screen time for kids. However, there are strategies, methods and approaches for parents and educators to help kids avoid the problems associated with too much screen time.
One way parents can help manage a child’s screen time is by placing limits on how long their child can use certain devices. An October 2016 article in the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under 18 months old not use digital devices, with the exception of video chatting. Children ages 2-5 are recommended to only spend one hour of screen time per day and to use it on high-quality programs. For children ages 6 and older, the AAP suggests that parents place limitations on screen time and the types of media consumed to ensure that these don’t “take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.”
Parents and educators can also help children by encouraging activities that don’t necessarily require a digital device or involve any sort of screen. Parents can help encourage healthy activities, such as playing outside, participating in sports, reading from books and pursuing new, interesting hobbies. Children adopt many of the behaviors exhibited by their parents, so it’s also important that parents act as screen time role models for their children. This can include not checking emails or messages that relate to work while at home, spending time on other activities that don’t involve a screen and even making screen time, such as TV watching, a family activity. For educators, there are methods and practices that can help manage students’ screen time, ensuring that children and teens are receiving the most value from their digital device use. Writing for the Washington Post, elementary school teacher Launa Hall discusses how when introduced as educational devices, iPads still caused many issues in her classroom, even though they did enable students to become enriched by new learning possibilities. For teachers, it’s not necessarily a matter of introducing too much or too little technology, or strictly limiting screen time to a certain period of the day in their classrooms, but of carefully considering the benefits and potential drawbacks of screen time and digital devices. Tablets and computers may be great learning tools for a particular lesson, but an in-person activity may be more beneficial for another. Some students may excel when using more digital learning devices, while others may fall behind and prefer conventional educational approaches. It’s a matter of a teacher evaluating what works best for each student and the entire classroom environment.
Resources for Managing Screen Time
There are additional tools and resources that can help parents and educators effectively manage a child’s and student’s screen time use.
- Tech-free zones. The AAP recommends establishing some sort of tech-free zone within a home or school, where no digital devices are permitted. This type of environment can help children reduce their screen time, strengthen their interpersonal relationships and possibly discover new activities.
- Monitor social media use. It’s true that on social media platforms, children can face bullying, abuse, harassment and other threats, both from peers and adults. However, parents and educators shouldn’t necessarily ban social media use or demand to read every private message exchanged on these platforms. Instead, they can work to make children aware of the dangers of screen time and certain social media activities, while carefully paying attention to how much time a child spends on social media, as well as the child’s personal and emotional state after use. For example, if a child seems to be anxious, nervous or depressed after spending time on social media, parents and teachers can intervene to determine if any new courses of action need to be taken.
- Tracking apps. For children, especially those who are younger, parents may be concerned regarding how their children are using their screen time. For example, a parent may not know if their child is actually using a tablet or laptop for homework and educational activities or is using it to play games and talk to friends on social media. Tracking apps and parental controls for computers, tablets, phones, television and video games can help parents monitor how their child’s screen time is being spent and to determine if any adjustments need to be made.
Ensure a Child’s Healthy Future
Digital devices can help children build new relationships; explore new, interesting academic subjects; and express themselves in creative, fulfilling ways. But too much screen time or improper use of digital devices can also lead to poor health outcomes, be associated with lackluster academic performance, and impair mental and emotional growth.
Ultimately, it’s up to each parent and educator to determine the best use of screen time for their children and students. Each child’s need for and benefits from screen time vary, and parents and teachers need to be aware and cognizant of the impact that digital devices can have.
American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use
Common Sense Media, Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences
Engadget, “How to Manage Your Child’s Screen Time”
Influence Central, Kids & Tech: The Evolution of Today’s Digital Natives
JAMA Network, “Association Between Screen Media Use and Academic Performance Among Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”
Pediatrics, Screen Media Exposure and Obesity in Children and Adolescents
The Washington Post, “I Gave My Students iPads — Then Wished I Could Take Them Back”