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A Parent’s Guide on Daily Screen Time (for Children)

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The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) issued some guidelines on screen time back in October 2016. Their guidelines are summarized as such:

  • No screen time before 18 months of age
  • Ages 2 to 5: “High quality” screen time (e.g. educational TV as opposed to action cartoons)
  • Ages 6 and above: “Proper regulation” of screen time
  • Assign “screen free” times of day for kids of all ages, such as during dinner

With all due respect to the AAP, these guidelines are somewhat vague and even flawed for the following 3 reasons:

  1. They don’t go far enough.
  2. They fail to distinguish “leisure” from “productive” screen time (a feat much easier said than done).
  3. They don’t adequately separate “active” from “passive” screen use.

By refining the AAP’s guidelines, we have come up with our own set of rules that can help parents better navigate our interconnected society and use the Internet “responsibly.”

Important Note: Please understand that the recommended times are daily averages. It is impractical to enforce the screen time limits for all occasions and events.

#1: The AAP doesn’t go far enough.

Think twice before handing over that iPad just because your child celebrates his or her 3rd birthday. Screen time is a culprit in learning disparities even as early as preschool between the children who use screens and those who don’t.

For those familiar with child developmental psychology, children experience different “growth phases” at different ages. From 18 months to 3 years, children start to pick up their first language. From the ages of 3 to 6, they begin to learn how to socialize and engage in creative activities with their peers. This process extends all the way through adolescence and young adulthood.

If a 3-year-old is suddenly given the option between watching cartoons on a tablet or playing on the playground with the neighbor’s kids, it’s quite obvious what they will choose. Unfortunately, many ill-informed parents think screen devices are perfectly innocuous, or worse, that the devices are “educational tools” to “enhance learning.”

If a child bypasses a growth phase without learning the required skills (i.e. fails to pick up language before 3 years, fails to socialize with peers in a meaningful manner before the age of 6), the effort required to “fix” the deficit later grows exponentially.

Here’s the bottom line: there is absolutely no reason any parent should think that their preschooler/kindergartener needs to learn ABC’s or 1 + 1 = 2 on an electronic device. Traditional methods of learning are perfectly sufficient and have worked for thousands of years. If something isn’t broken, don’t “fix” it!

In line with the precautionary principle, True Digital Detox recommends the following:

1. Ages 0 – 5: No screen time, no exceptions. Children should learn by exploring their natural environment and developing basic motor, spatial, communication, language, and creativity skills through organic interaction.

2. Ages 6 – 10: Maximum of 30 minutes daily.

3. Ages 11 – 17: Maximum of 60 to 90 minutes daily.

These guidelines are far stricter than the ones suggested by the AAP. With that being said, we will update them with more accurate and precise qualifications.

#2: The AAP does not distinguish “leisure” from “productive” screen time.

Gone are the good old days of teachers accepting badly hand-written homework or handing out printed copies of Charlotte’s Web or To Kill a Mockingbird to every student. Many schools have zealously hopped onto the “eLearning” (Internet-based education) bandwagon over the past 10 years.

When the AAP issued their “2 hours” standard limit, they did not specify whether the rule should apply to leisure time or leisure + productive time combined. Intuitively, we believe the AAP was referring to both (option #2) since one hour spent staring at a screen is one hour staring at a screen. Whether it’s typing an essay on a Microsoft Word document or secretly watching pornography is irrelevant since that one hour cannot be used for other activities such as physical exercise, playing outside, socializing in person, or learning a craft.

However, attempting to separate “leisure” from “productive” time is quite difficult. After all, it takes a grand total of 2-3 seconds to open a new browser tab and go on YouTube. You as parents are also not going to stand there every day carefully scrutinizing your kids’ online activities (and they would probably loathe you if you tried to do so) to make sure they’re actually doing homework while on the computer.

We believe productive use of screens is most certainly justifiable, but with reasonable time limits. This is where the parent needs to exercise some discreet personal judgment and not fall for lame excuses.

Does your 6th grader need 35 minutes to type a double-spaced 1-page paper? That’s a reasonable request.

Does your 5th grader need 2 hours to read a 6-page online article on different cloud formations? No! 30 minutes should be sufficient.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of methods to keep screen time to a minimum, even if “I have to do my homework” is the predominant warrant:

  • Encourage offline research. Libraries exist for a reason! People who do offline research are far more likely to retain the information they’ve gained compared to those who type in a query on Google. More effort spent is more knowledge retained, and parents need to encourage this!
  • Verify that the assignment actually requires Internet use. Considering K – 12 schools across the United States spend billions on physical textbooks each year (much of which is obscenely priced – your amazing tax dollars at work!), there’s no reason the information kids are looking for can’t be obtained physically. This may seem “inefficient,” but it’s far better than learning how to paraphrase Wikipedia. Why even bother learning anything at all if anyone can look up something online in minutes? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. It’s frightening how many people actually think “online education” is an appropriate or even superior substitute to traditional education.)
  • Deny Internet access. If an assignment requires typing out an essay, for example, then the best option is to let them use applications such as Microsoft Word/Excel but not access the Internet.

For typical students, 30 minutes or fewer for “productive Internet use” on a daily basis is needed until they reach high school. Let’s visualize this using a simple example.

If the teacher assigns a 5 page paper in 7th grade, they will usually give ~2 weeks or more to finish the assignment. Assuming a generous 45 minute time frame for each page, the student should only need a little under ~4 hours to complete the assignment given that research can almost always be done offline. 4 hours of total screen time for that paper over a period of 2 weeks comes out to ~17 minutes daily.

Additional note: We understand that with the introduction of the controversial and much-hated “Common Core,” many schools have been emphasizing a greater role for “Internet” based learning. We agree that the administrators in school districts who have made the decision to hand out iPads like candy to the kids are complete idiots. However, there are still workarounds to ensure that the screen time limit is observed without any difficulty; they will simply require some of your imagination.

Let us update our previous guidelines to reflect this new information:

1. Ages 0 – 5: No screen time, no exceptions. Children should learn by exploring their natural environment and developing basic motor, spatial, communication, language, and creativity skills through organic interaction.

2. Ages 6 – 10: Maximum of 30 minutes of leisure time daily, with a minimal allowance of “productive screen time.” (30 minutes is usually sufficient) This should be determined on an “as needed” basis.

3. Ages 11 – 17: Maximum of 60 to 90 minutes of leisure time daily, with a modest allowance of “productive screen time.” An extra 30 – 60 minutes for homework use on a daily basis is perfectly reasonable. This should be determined on an “as needed” basis.

Examples of “productive use” for kids: Typing a research paper or essay, watching class-assigned videos, reading mandatory articles, reviewing lessons through a 3rd party website (such as Khan Academy), watching an educational movie or documentary, and doing actual research.

Examples of “non-productive” AKA leisure use for kids: Playing Fortnite, watching (dumb) dog and cat videos on YouTube, chatting online, making posts on social forums, tagging friends on Instagram, sending emails (I know email is “supposedly productive,” but it really isn’t), online shopping, reading pop culture articles

#3: The AAP doesn’t separate “intense” (“active”) from “non-intense” (“passive”) screen time.

Not all screen time is created equal when it comes to the impact on the brain. Some media and content are far more stimulating than others, and this should be taken into account of what should and should NOT be allowed.

“Active” screen time creates more stress, excitement, and restlessness compared to “passive” screen time. Users subject to excessive amounts of “active” screen time over a long period of time (think 6 months or more) will display some of the same problems as those seen in kids who actually have ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder).

Here are some examples of passive screen use:

  1. Black and white eBook readers (used for no other purpose than to read books/articles)
  2. Educational TV (Discovery channel, scientific documentaries, etc.)
  3. Older movies and TV shows (The Cosby Show and the original Star Wars trilogy is nothing compared to what we have today)
  4. Reading historical, scientific, or literary pieces online (does not include “news” websites)

Here is a lengthy (yet by no means exhaustive) list of active screen uses:

  1. Entertainment TV, including cartoons, most shows on Netflix, etc.
  2. PC gaming
  3. Mobile gaming
  4. Console gaming, including handhelds (Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Nintendo DS)
  5. Streaming services (Twitch.TV, PlayStation Vue, etc.) and online video websites (YouTube)
  6. Social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, etc.)
  7. Cell phone texting
  8. Chatrooms
  9. Social Forums
  10. Pornography (We hate to mention this, but far too many kids are exposed at a young age, and parents should acknowledge the risks)

The best “proxy” for determining whether the “screen time” is considered passive or active is to ask, “How fun or exciting is the activity?” Give your son or daughter a black and white eBook reader, and I can almost guarantee they’ll complain of boredom in fewer than 30 minutes. However, give them an iPad and let them download all the apps they want, and they won’t let go for hours.

Now that we’ve accounted for our third and last set of “additional rules,” let us revise the guidelines one final time:

FINAL, REVISED GUIDELINES FOR SCREEN USE

1. Ages 0 – 5: No screen time, no exceptions. Children should learn by exploring their natural environment and developing basic motor, spatial, communication, language, and creativity skills through organic interaction.

2. Ages 6 – 10: Maximum of 30 minutes of leisure time daily, with a minimal allowance of “productive screen time.” (30 minutes is usually sufficient) This should be determined on an “as needed” basis.

Parents should place a stronger emphasis on passive screen use over active screen use for this age group.For instance, buying a black-and-white eBook reader for your child at the age of 8 is not an unreasonable choice. Renting or buying old movie DVD’s is not an unreasonable choice. On the other hand, we strongly discourage buying a Nintendo 3DS or handing a smartphone to your kids at the same age of 8.

3. Ages 11 – 17: Maximum of 60 to 90 minutes of leisure time daily,with a modest allowance of “productive screen time.” An extra 30 – 60 minutes for homework use on a daily basis is perfectly reasonable. This should be determined on an “as needed” basis.

Parents should educate their kids (and even place limits) on what types of “active screen use” are appropriate.

Additional Point:

It becomes very difficult to “put the genie back into the bottle” once the floodgates have been opened. In other words, going from a low-tech lifestyle to a high-tech lifestyle takes no effort whatsoever, but the reverse is nightmarishly difficult.

As the human brain is naturally wired to seek the “greatest reward” (dopamine-to-effort ratio), and Internet use most certainly generates quite a bit of dopamine, you would do well to exercise caution.

Some Exceptions to the Guidelines Above

As mentioned near the beginning, the guidelines are designed for a day-to-day basis. Here are some examples of “exceptions” or events where breaking the limit is acceptable:

  1. Movie theaters – provided it is an occasional event or outing (i.e. once every month)
  2. Procrastination/last minute work – if an assignment is due tomorrow, it would be foolish to NOT let your son or daughter spend the time needed to complete the assignment. Procrastination should be discouraged for obvious reasons.
  3. Playing with friends – obviously, it is impractical (not to mention squeamish) to try and force the “30 minutes” or “60 minutes” rule if they decide to hang out at a friend’s place.

However, these exceptions should not be used to disregard the rules entirely.

(Question) “Aren’t your guidelines too strict?”

If you took a time machine back to the 1960s, you will rarely find parents who allow their kids to watch more than 60 – 90 minutes of TV a day. Most parents forced their kids to play outside the house (assuming there wasn’t a ravaging thunderstorm or howling blizzard), and as it turns out, this is actually the proper way to parent. Kids who play outside learn invaluable skills that cannot be taught in the classroom. Obtaining adequate sunshine is also critical for health purposes.

Unfortunately, this wisdom has been lost through the ages (sarcasm for those who couldn’t tell) for various reasons including ones not listed below:

  1. Helicopter parenting – parents who want to oversee every aspect of kids’ lives and deny them any semblance of autonomy/decision making
  2. Paranoia – parents deathly afraid that “something bad” will happen if kids play outside, thus inadvertently creating conditions where the potential for Internet addiction can flourish
  3. Ignorance – parents who are oblivious to the consequences of excessive screen time or oblivious to how much time their kids actually spend online. Internet use has definitely contributed to higher obesity among minors.
  4. Greed – consumer tech companies who gladly push their products on unsuspecting families to make an extra buck. Those same tech executives don’t allow their kids near tech until their teen years. (Ironic, no?)
  5. Physical exercise treated as “optional” instead of “mandatory.” 45 to 60 minutes of modest exercise a day keeps the doctor (and potentially tens of thousands in bills) away 20 years down the road.

(Question) “Why 60 to 90 minutes as the daily maximum for ages 11 – 17? Why not use the AARP’s 2 hours rule?”

60 minutes coincides with the “maximum possible” happiness as a result of screen use. According to the SDSU study…


But after a daily hour of screen time, unhappiness rises steadily along with increasing screen time.


In other words, kids who spend ~60 minutes on the Internet every day are happier than those who use ~0 minutes and are much happier than those who, say, use ~180 minutes.

There is nothing wrong with setting a slightly higher limit such as 75 or even 90 minutes. However, keep in mind that since you will inevitably have to allocate time for “homework assignments,” that “60 minutes” actually becomes 90 or 120 minutes of total screen time. As we mentioned before, those 90 or 120 minutes spent in front of a screen (for whatever purpose) is 90 or 120 minutes that can’t be spent on other activities.

After all, we only have 24 hours a day.

(Question) “You seem highly critical of ‘helicopter parenting,’ yet at the same time you’re arguing that we should restrict our kids’ use of electronic devices?”

There is a fine line between responsible parenting and helicopter parenting. Responsible parenting means telling your kids that drugs, gangs, and (unprotected) sex will very often lead to bad outcomes and should be avoided. Helicopter parenting is:

  • Telling your 18-year old son he has to be home by 9 PM every day (true story)
  • Forcing your 16-year old daughter to do certain extracurricular activities because those activities will supposedly “get them into a good college” (true story)
  • Checking your 15-year old son’s homework every single night due to one “bad grade” received on a relatively insignificant assignment (true story)
  • Disallowing your 15-year old daughter from walking to the park one block down from your house because it’s “supposedly too dangerous” in suburbia (true story)

I understand the examples I’ve listed above seem absurd, but they are true. I’ve talked with parents (and kids who talk about their parents). Helicopter parenting is far more prevalent than it was 40 years ago.

A responsible parent will set firm boundaries (including limits on screen time) but will encourage kids to explore and learn from minor mistakes along the way within those boundaries. Nothing we post contradicts this statement.

(Question) “What are some reasons Internet use are as harmful as you suggest, especially for minors?”

Even if Internet addiction is not an issue within your family, excessive Internet and electronics use carries its own set of problems.

Excessive time online is associated with the following:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to focus
  • Stunted communication skills
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety
  • Suffering grades

For those with more serious problems (that can potentially be classified as an “addiction“), these are just some of the possible consequences:

  • Higher probability of depression
  • Higher probability of psychosis
  • An extreme strain on personal relationships
  • Neglect of physical health

Accessing the Internet is done through electronic screen devices, which stimulate the brain to a high degree. This stimulation creates many of the symptoms mentioned in group #1 (hyperactivity, for example) and is indirectly responsible for other problems.

(Question) “It seems like my son/daughter spends WAAAYYYYY more than 90 minutes…I think they spend closer to 4 or 5 hours a day?!”

That’s actually not as abnormal as you think. Reports on this subject tend to vary, but the “average time spent online” for teens on a day-to-day basis is very likely somewhere between 5 to 8 hours.

Yes, we agree that is FAR too much. Don’t assume that just because other people’s kids are doing it means that it’s OK. Remember, back in the 1960s, your typical high school senior smoked cigarettes to “fit in” and “look cool” to the other kids.

First off, you need to EDUCATE THEM. Tell them why screen use (Internet use) is harmful past a certain point. We will create a blog post shortly with all the resources and information you need so you can simply link them the article, but until then, point out the following:

  • Lack of time to exercise is a precursor to mental health issues like depression
  • High levels of stimulation to the brain caused by electronic screen devices leads to poorer cognitive functioning, poorer sleep patterns, etc.
  • Lack of focus means poorer academic performance and efficiency
  • “Online friends” do NOT replace “real friends.” They are a very poor substitute

Once again, there’s a LOT of research on this subject. We will post a SEPARATE article on this topic (likely by the end of April) and update this to reflect the research.

Likewise, you may perform a 30 to 90 day detox. No electronics use will help reset the brain.


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