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Screen time for kids: setting safe boundaries

Julie Ogletree, LICSW, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist in the Outpatient Mental Health department at Franciscan Children’s. To learn more about our Outpatient Mental Health services, please click here. To make a referral, please call us at 617-254-3800 x3141.

Parent and child looking at computer screen, limiting screen time

Technology has become an integral part of our lives. It offers us tools to manage our hectic schedules and presents the greatest opportunity to connect with others across the world in an instant. However, our increasing need to stay connected to the internet is threatening our personal connections with our families and friends.

As an outpatient mental health clinician, I often field questions from my families about screen time. How much should digital devices figure into the mix of our family’s daily activities? How much screen time is appropriate for children of different ages?  As a parent, how do I limit my own and my child’s use of devices?

These questions are not uncommon. A 2015 Common Sense Media survey found that 53% of children ages 8-12 have their own tablet and 24 % have their own smart phone. Among teenagers, 67% have their own smartphone1. Families around the world struggle to balance screen time and nurturing face-to-face relationships on a daily basis.

Studies show that the consequences of device distraction can be devastating.  Children of all ages cited feeling increasingly ignored and frustrated by their parents’ distraction by devices while checking emails for work, Facebook or other social media platforms. Parents mentioned worrying about their children not getting enough sleep, having shorter attention spans and losing important social skills because they use screens so much and have less time in face to face interactions with their parents and each other3. 28% of family members spent less time with each other because of the internet in 2011, compared to 11% in 2006, and family members said the amount of time they spent together each month dropped from 26 hours to 17.9 hours4.

So where do we start?

Organizations like the American Psychological Association and the American Pediatric Association recommend creating a clear “media plan” for yourself and your family2 by deciding which family activities are going to be “screen-free.” These activities create uninterrupted time for families to spend together without the distraction of technology. All family members are held accountable for following the media plan, and parents should set a strong example by modeling the respect for technology-free time that they expect from their children.

Setting aside meal times, time in the car and bed time as screen-free times is a good place to start. These moments allow families to connect and have conversations together, to listen to children about their daily activities, and if you are in a car pool, to hear children talking with each other.  Bed times are an important screen-free time because the blue light from devices stimulates the brain and can make it hard to fall asleep.  Sleeping in a room with a TV or a tablet or phone, may make it difficult for your child to stop watching videos or communicating with friends and get the 8-12 hours of sleep they need each night.

Families also benefit from designating times to play with each other.  Children grow through connections – face to face interactions, conversations, story times, and shared activities with their parents.  They learn how to solve problems and express themselves through activity and play.  Setting aside daily designated time for play and exercise allows you and your children to practice entertaining yourselves without the use of screens. Embracing and supporting opportunities for children to play with each other is also important, giving them the social interactions they need with their peers to learn and grow.

Media can be tempting to help children stay quiet and occupied, however, it’s important for them to learn other ways to calm down, manage boredom and cope with strong emotions. If your child struggles with anxiety, check out this blog post from my colleague, Dr. Kiera Boyle, for tips on how to help manage it.

Age considerations can also factor into screen-time best practices. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends1:

  • For children under 18 months, no screen-based media except video chatting
  • For children ages 18-24 months, only high quality programming watched along with parents
  • For children ages 2-5 years, limit screen time to one hour per day of quality programming
  • For children ages 6+ years, establish consistent limits on time using screens and on the type of media.
  • Adjust screen time as your child gets older

Like so many parenting decisions, it’s important to think carefully before giving your child a tablet or smart phone of their own. Once they have one, it will be even more difficult to monitor their use of the internet. If and when you decide it’s OK for them to have access to a device, here are a few tips to help manage their use:

  • Make it clear that having a device is a privilege, and one that can be lost if they’re not responsible and respectful
  • Keep the password to the device so that you’re able to access it
  • Use the parental controls on the device to limit times of use and access to inappropriate websites
  • Talk about safe online behavior and digital decision making
  • Always be aware of and pay attention to what your children are doing online
  • Play some video games together so that you can see what they’re doing and model how to play smart and safely
  • Talk about the importance of privacy and the risks of not having adequate privacy settings on their devices and profiles, be open about what information should be kept private
  • Warn children about the dangers of predators and interacting with people they don’t know
  • Discuss the permanency of sharing information online – children and teens should know that once a photo or words are shared with others, they will not be able to delete it or remove it completely, including texting inappropriate pictures

Ultimately, kids will be kids and they will make mistakes. As a parent, it’s important to help them work through these experiences in a supportive way and use errors as teachable moments.

More serious communications – sexting, bullying or self-harm images – may require professional help from a primary care or a mental health provider. If you have any questions or concerns regarding your child’s use of media, contact your pediatrician.


Helpful resources:


1. American Psychological Association, Digital Guidelines: Promoting Healthy Technology Use for Children

2. HealthyChildren.org, Where We Stand: Screen Time

3. Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Harper Collins, 2013, p.24

4. Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Harper Collins, 2013, p. 11-14.

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