Screen time. The harrowing debate that has parents in shambles all over. Is it good? Is it bad? Am I giving my kid too much? There’s the never-ending question of how we should be limiting screen time for kids. And then there’s the lingering guilt—everytime you plop your infant down in front of the TV while you make dinner. Or when you hand your kid their iPad while you take a break on the couch. Even in moderation, the screen time guilt still finds a way to seep in.

I’ve had worries about screen time since before becoming a mother, and the screen time guilt only escalated once I had my first child. I’ve overheard conversations of moms judging other moms for allowing their infant to watch TV. I’ve spearheaded debates about how screen time in moderation can be useful in an attempt to defend the fact that my one-year-old does indeed watch TV sometimes. I’ve tried to regulate the amount of screen time my son gets, even when he is not in my direct care. 

Related: How harmful is screen time for kids? Not as bad as we may think

And it has been a fight with guilt that I seem to continue losing. Even as a mom who gives screen time in moderation. Even as a mom who tries to ensure that he is watching educational shows when he does receive screen time. Even as a mom who just can’t do it all when it comes to caring about his development and physical or social interactions. 

We are told that screen time can be a useful tool—and then we are bombarded with scholarly articles or unsolicited comments on the negative effects of it.

We are told that mamas need a break sometimes—and then we are made to feel guilty for allowing our kid to watch a YouTube episode while we take a few minutes to ourselves.

As a mama, I try to limit the screen time that I allow my son to have as much as I can. Honestly, I was the parent who vowed that I wouldn’t give my child screen time until he was at least two years old. But as the realities of parenthood set in, tiny bits of screen time have become a saving grace in those desperate times of need.

Like when I need to take a shower. Or when I need to put the laundry in the washer. Or when I need to take the trash out. Or when I simply need a mere few minutes to catch a break—especially as a stay-at-home mom and especially as the primary caretaker for my child. 

I just can’t do it all.

But then the guilt sets in. The pressure to limit my child’s screen time lingers over me every single day. And it’s an enormous burden to carry. I have this pestering voice in the back of my head, and every time I give my child screen time, that voice makes me feel like I am not a good mom.

Related: Most kids under 5 are getting too much screen time, study finds

How much TV time has he had today? Is there something else that he can be doing instead? Most likely, there is. Is the TV too bright? Is it hindering his development? If you never introduced him to screen time, maybe he’d be more advanced by now.

But as the primary caretaker of my child, as the one who’s hip he is glued to practically 24/7, I need a break sometimes. And screen time is sometimes the easiest opportunity for me to receive one in that moment.

But the guilt still lingers. And in my case at least, my parent guilt over screen time is just another facet of a bigger problem: how under-supported moms are. 

The pressures of limiting screen time is just a reminder of everything that moms have to balance just to get stuff done. Because sometimes, screen time is our last resort before we break. Sometimes, it’s the only guaranteed option to ensure that we get a break. Especially when our children are young and need more attention, more entertaining and more tending to. 

The pressures of limiting screen time is another reminder that moms just can’t do it all. 

I spoke with licensed clinical psychologist and mother of three, Dr. Cara Goodwin, PhD, about how mothers dealing with screen time guilt can lessen their self-condemnation.

“Research suggests that screen time is not inherently harmful. Rather, research only suggests that real-life social interactions may be more optimal for children’s learning than screen time, and excessive screen time may cause your child to miss out on real-life interactions and quality family time.”

“In addition, the impact of screen time seems to be less important than the impact of other factors. For example, sensitive parenting seems to have a greater impact on language development than screen time. Another study found that when an infant watches over two hours of screen time per day before their first birthday, the child is six times more likely to be diagnosed with a language delay.  However, having a family history of language delay increases the risk of language delay 10 times and neglectful parenting increases the risk of language delay 30 times.”  

Goodwin also explained that mothers shouldn’t feel guilty about giving their child screen time when used as a means to complete another task or simply recollect themselves.

“If a mother needs to use a screen to keep her child safe or even to take a break for her own mental health, that is often the right choice. In these situations, parents should consider what their child would be doing instead of screen time. If they could be having a high-quality interaction with their parent or learning independent play skills, it may not be the best time for a screen.”

“For example, if the alternative is being in a dangerous situation (such as not being supervised while the mother cooks dinner), screen time may be an appropriate choice. Similarly, if the parent thinks they might lose their cool with their child without a break, screen time may be preferable to the parent screaming at the child.”

Related: How to balance screen time for your family

While there are certainly health concerns associated with excessive use of screen time, Goodwin suggests that even the quality of programming can contribute to the positive or negative effects that screen time may have on children. 

“Research finds that high-quality shows can help children to learn important concepts. For example, one study found that watching high-quality shows is associated with improved executive functioning. Research also finds that high-quality shows such as ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Daniel Tiger’ are associated with improved social skills, and high-quality shows such as ‘Super Why’ are associated with improved literacy skills. Research also finds that children can learn academic concepts from apps. Again, quality really matters, so look for apps that are educational, interactive and have few distracting features.”  

Being mindful of the quality of screen time that we give to our kids also comes with knowing how to give screen time in moderation so that our children aren’t always in front of a screen. This allows them to also not miss out on other social interactions and opportunities. Goodwin suggested creating boundaries with limiting screen time for kids as a way to monitor its moderation. 

“I always advise parents to make screen time a routine so that children understand when the screen will be turned on and when it will be turned off. Screen time is often a source of power struggles and meltdowns. If children know that they only watch screens while their younger sibling is napping for example, they are less likely to have a meltdown when screen time is over or whine for screen time at other times throughout the day. It is also important to turn off all screens at least one hour before bed since screens may have a significant impact on sleep.” 

While the guilt that lingers behind limiting screen time for kids may be overwhelming, moms should know that in moderation and in times of need, screen time isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And the one thing that truly counts is that we have our kids’ best interest at heart—even when we need a break at times. Because as moms, we just can’t do it all—and we shouldn’t have to.

Featured expert

Dr. Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and a mother to three. She specializes in child development and has spent years researching child psychology and neuroscience, providing therapy and clinical services for children of all ages.