How much screen time is best for kids?

Dr. Timothy F. Doran, chairman of pediatrics at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
Dr. Timothy F. Doran, chairman of pediatrics at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. (Photo courtesy of GBMC, Baltimore Sun)

It seems that just about all kids, from toddlers to teenagers, have a smartphone, tablet or other device in their hands at one time or another. But too much screen time might not be healthy, especially if it's replacing physical activities or interfering with personal relationships or homework.

Dr. Timothy F. Doran, chairman of pediatrics at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson, explains how much might be too much and what to do instead.


There are so many devices available now and kids love them. So why are they so bad?

Touchscreen technology — whether an iPad, tablet, smartphone or computer — is a game-changer for kids. No longer hindered by mouses or keyboards, with their requirement to recognize letters, toddlers now have immediate access to whole worlds of wonder as soon as they can point. Toddlers easily swipe photographs on smartphones, school-age children manipulate their iPads like maestros of a major orchestra and adolescents communicate ubiquitously and continually by text. Pat the Bunny (the book) has been replaced by Pat the Bunny (the app).


Kids do love these devices. Is this bad? The long-term consequences of kids using devices are unclear. Scientific studies on their effects lag behind the explosion of devices. Current knowledge on the interplay of media and children comes from studies about television and video-game usage, not touchscreen computers, and there are no data on usage by toddlers. Yet despite a lack of data, there are reasons to be cautious. We do know a few things about child development. We know that the brain grows fastest in the first three years of life, rapidly increasing the number of synapses for each brain cell. We also know that too much time in front of any screen interferes with development of social skills. And we know that unstructured play is more valuable than any screen time but is a less frequent experience for members of this generation.

At what age is screen time OK and how much?

Sadly, the average American child spends seven hours a day in front of a screen. The majority of time is in front of televisions, but smartphones, video games, computers and tablets are making major inroads. Experts in child development recommend no screen time before the age of 2. In reality, more than 80 percent of parents allow their toddlers to use their smartphones. It is just so much easier to thoroughly engage toddlers in an iPad app while waiting for their doctor's appointment than trying to keep them occupied with a book. And how harmful is using an iPad as a coloring surface rather than crayons on paper if the iPad is used in moderation?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time per day. Television remains the dominant screen for media exposure. The American home averages more TV sets than people.

We know from studies on TV-watching that there are negative effects on children's health. Children who watch more TV exercise less, snack more and are exposed to advertising promoting nutritionally poor foods. Not surprisingly, they suffer higher rates of obesity. There are also data to support higher rates of aggression in children who watch more TV, though this is more controversial.

Does one kind of screen offer more positives or negatives than another (TV, video games, tablets, smartphones)?

The greatest threat to the safety of children is premature access to inappropriate Internet content: privacy issues, solicitation, pornography, identity theft and cyberbullying all pose real dangers to children. The Internet also offers the greatest potential for a positive experience. Studies show that shy and reserved adolescents, for instance, can form close relationships online that are much more difficult or impossible for them in a school setting. It is here that parental vigilance plays a critical role.

If you want to limit screen time, how can you go about it?

Some families I see in my practice have "no device" zones. All children must check their smartphones at the entry door, and their parents establish rooms where all technology devices are banned. Kitchens and dining rooms would be my suggestions for no-device zones, since meals are an important time and place for families to stay connected with one another, and the fewer the distractions, the better the experience.

Another way to limit screen time is to actively engage children in physical activities. Playing catch after work, going for walks or runs, bike rides, sledding or any activity that gets the family out of the house will accomplish multiple goals.

Is there help available if your child can't seem to break the habit?

Adolescents can experience significant emotional attachment to social networks — the so-called Facebook addiction. Compulsive usage may lead to poor grades in school and obsession with updating and friend-gathering. Withdrawal may precipitate anxiety and depression. Rarely, professional help may be warranted.


Overall, device usage is likely to become even more prevalent. The task for parents is to develop rules that allow limited use that enhances children's experiences while not stifling unstructured time or outdoor play. Moderation is the key.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun