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Screen time: It’s probably one of the most debated and occasionally frustrating aspects of parenting in the modern age. Pediatricians and researchers say too much time with phones, tablets or TVs is bad for developing minds. But, for many families, a screen-free childhood isn’t possible or even desirable. After all, we live in a digital age and our kids need to be tech and media savvy.


Matthew Johnson, the Director of Education for MediaSmarts, a not-for-profit charitable organization for digital and media literacy, screen-time balance is about more than counting minutes—and looks different at every stage of childhood.

Here’s what we know about age-appropriate limits for screen time:

For toddlers

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers should pretty much only see screens during occasional video chats with Grandma. In fact, The Atlantic reports that video chat evokes a different neurological response in babies and toddlers than pure TV time, noting that children seem to understand the video chat is a two-way human interaction that is different than television or even phone conversation:

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“Babies who are pretty young are able to pick up, in particular, whether or not an adult is actually responding to them in real time. . . [and] researchers have found that toddlers are more comforted by their mothers via video chat than they are through audio alone. Video chat appears to be, conceptually, much easier for babies to grasp than a phone conversation,” The Atlantic notes.

But even video chat should be limited.

“There really is fairly strong evidence that time spent with screens can have a negative effect on kids’ language and other forms of development,” Johnson tells Motherly. “[It’s] not necessarily because there’s anything particularly bad about screens, but because it replaces the kinds of human interactions and physical and creative play that kids at that age really need to develop.”

For preschoolers

Three to 5 year olds are known for loving video screens as much as they love cartoon characters—and, according to Johnson, their obsession with both can be satisfied in moderation.

“There’s nothing particularly bad about handheld devices compared to other types of screens, except of course the temptation to use them as a calming or distracting device,” he says. He adds parents should plan screen time in advance so that it is only used mindfully, rather than out of desperation.

And if your kiddo is obsessed with Frozen or Paw Patrol, Johnson suggests engaging with those characters off screen.

“Many, many types of screen media content have print or other versions, so you can read a book or a comic that features those characters frequently,” he says. “You can also engage your kids in creative play. You can get them to draw or tell stories or act out their own versions of these character’s adventures.”

For elementary school-aged kids

When kids enter school and start to have new priorities, screen time needs to take a back seat. But, as they grow, parents can gradually give kids more control and choice in managing their time.

“Certainly once they start getting homework at school, you want to make sure screens aren’t a habit before work gets done,” says Johnson, who compares teaching screen time balance to teaching oral hygiene. “When kids are young, you brush their teeth but as they grow you teach them and remind them to do it.”

He suggests that as kids age, parents make distinctions between different types of screen time—as not everything has the same value.

“Specifically, instead of counting hours you might consider a creative use of screens—doing an animation project or doing school research—as being counted differently than using it in a passive way.”

For middle schoolers

According to Johnson, once a child is in middle school they can understand the concept of balance. Then it’s up to parents to help them see how that relates to screen time.

“Make a list of all the different activities that they like, that are both in screens and that aren’t involved with screens,” he says, explaining this can help them understand that there are trade-offs.

He says parents don’t need to worry if a kid gets really into a certain video game for a week or two. Just gently try to help the kid see the benefits of moderation. He explains, “They do need to develop the life skill—as we all need to do today—to recognize when we’re spending too much time doing any one thing, particularly with screens.”

For the whole family

Johnson says the biggest downside of screen time is its tendency to isolate us. To counteract that, he suggests a family movie night or outing to the cinema. Because this has a totally different affect on children than solitary YouTube sessions, parents shouldn’t worry about counting communal activities against a screen time limit.

He says parents should also have conversations about appropriate amounts of media consumption often—and model the behavior we want.

“We need to gradually shift that responsibility from us to them,” he says. “Eventually they’re going to be teenagers or they’re going to be out of the house and it's going to be entirely up to them to manage it.”

When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to know everything that could possibly be in store for his first year.

I quizzed my own mom and the friends who ventured into motherhood before I did. I absorbed parenting books and articles like a sponge. I signed up for classes on childbirth, breastfeeding and even baby-led weaning. My philosophy? The more I knew, the better.

Yet, despite my best efforts, I didn't know it all. Not by a long shot. Instead, my firstborn, my husband and I had to figure it out together—day by day, challenge by challenge, triumph by triumph.

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The funny thing is that although I wanted to know it all, the surprises—those moments that were unique to us—were what made that first year so beautiful.

Of course, my research provided a helpful outline as I graduated from never having changed a diaper to conquering the newborn haze, my return to work, the milestones and the challenges. But while I did need much of that tactical knowledge, I also learned the value of following my baby's lead and trusting my gut.

I realized the importance of advice from fellow mamas, too. I vividly remember a conversation with a friend who had her first child shortly before I welcomed mine. My friend, who had already returned to work after maternity leave, encouraged me to be patient when introducing a bottle and to help my son get comfortable with taking that bottle from someone else.

Yes, from a logistical standpoint, that's great advice for any working mama. But I also took an incredibly important point from this conversation: This was less about the act of bottle-feeding itself, and more about what it represented for my peace of mind when I was away from my son.

This fellow mama encouraged me to honor my emotions and give myself permission to do what was best for my family—and that really set the tone for my whole approach to parenting. Because honestly, that was just the first of many big transitions during that first year, and each of them came with their own set of mixed emotions.

I felt proud and also strangely nostalgic as my baby seamlessly graduated to a sippy bottle.

I felt my baby's teething pain along with him and also felt confident that we could get through it with the right tools.

I felt relieved as my baby learned to self-soothe by finding his own pacifier and also sad to realize how quickly he was becoming his own person.



As I look back on everything now, some four years and two more kids later, I can't remember the exact day my son crawled, the project I tackled on my first day back at work, or even what his first word was. (It's written somewhere in a baby book!)

But I do remember how I felt with each milestone: the joy, the overwhelming love, the anxiety, the exhaustion and the sense of wonder. That truly was the greatest gift of the first year… and nothing could have prepared me for all those feelings.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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I was blissfully asleep on the couch while my little one was occupied elsewhere with toys, books and my partner. She got bored with what they were doing, escaped from his watch and, sensing my absence, set about looking for me. Finding me on the couch, nose-level, she peeled back my one available eyelid, singing, "Mama? Mama? ...You there? Wake UP!"

Sound familiar? Nothing limits sleep more than parenthood. And nothing is more sought after as a parent than a nap, if not a good night's rest.

But Mother Nature practically guarantees that you are likely to be woken up by a toddler—they're hardwired to find you (and get your attention) when you're "away."

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