young boy with a tablet: screen time in children how much is enough and how much is too much

After our last disastrous 18 months, more than ever parents are pulling their hair out asking for guidance on “how much is enough” when it comes to screen time. Ten minutes of YouTube for a 3-year-old and 50 minutes fighting to get it back results in complete exhaustion, lots of tears and big patches of empty space where mom has pulled her last locks out.

And as much as we know that it’s better for kids to be climbing trees outside than to be sitting on an iPad, we also need to get real and appreciate that:

  1. Parents need a break – to make the dinner, to have a phone call or just to not be ‘on duty’ 24/7
  2. It’s now inevitable that screens are part of our kids’ world.

When it comes to screens and kids/teens, the number 1 feeling most parents have is of being totally overwhelmed. But there’s some good news: we’re going to keep things uncomplicated with KLIKD’s fresh new approach to time online!

Are there set “screen time limits” for each age?

When parents first started worrying about the effects of screens on kids, the clever folks at the American Academy of Pediatrics stepped in with recommendations (0-18 months – no screen time at all; 18 to 24 months – no screen time except for video chatting; and 2 to 5 years – an hour or less of screen time per day). Other researchers across the globe have also produced specific guidelines around children’s chronological age BUT…

Experts across the board (including the original above-mentioned clever people at the American Academy of Paediatrics) have recognised that universal screen time limits per age are no longer practical given our increasingly digital world (not to mention lockdown and remote learning). These guidelines have never been scientifically validated and also do not take into account different types of children and different types of “screens” (some kids may turn into monsters after 45 minutes of playing on an iPad and others may remain unphased).

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While we are NOT saying you shouldn’t make rules around how much screen time you allow your child, we are saying that we don’t need to fret as much about the specific amount of time based on age. Instead, KLIKD recommends parents focus on two main concepts:
1. Priorities. What is the screen replacing?
2. What, When and Where? What is being watched, where is it being watched and when is the watching taking place?

young boy with a tablet: screen time in children how much is enough and how much is too much

Priorities: what is the screen displacing? 

The most important question to ask yourself as a parent when your kids use a screen is “What is the opportunity cost?” This means, “what is the screen displacing?” Is the screen causing your child to miss out on important developmental activities”?

Consider what your kids are missing out on when they’re online: two hours spent watching TV is two hours not spent playing outdoors, riding bikes, or reading a book. What are they not doing as a result of being on a digital device?

Kids have seven basic, unchanging developmental needs (relationships/attachments, language, sleep, play, physical movement, nutrition and executive function skills) and before we make space for the screen, we have to ensure that screens aren’t eroding or displacing opportunities for these basic needs to be met.

For little kids, this is a judgement call you as a parent have to make on your own, but as soon as your child is old enough to participate and understand this conversation, sit down with them and explain that just as a car needs petrol, a clean engine, oil and good tyres to run at performance, so too do our bodies and brains need certain things to run at optimum.

Ask your child what things they believe they really need to keep them at feeling their best -help them, through discussion, to realise it is exercise, playdates, school time, healthy food, study time, special treat times with you, sleep and, of course, some screen time. Acknowledge that you are happy to have screen time as part of their day as long as all the other things are going to be a part of their day too.

Once a child can a have fair and reasonable conversation (from about the age of seven onwards) you should be able to have a more meaningful, rational conversation with them. Explaining that every one of these things has to fit into the day means you are not bargaining, you are accommodating! Four hours on Roblox means that there might not be enough time for a playdate and sport and bath time. So how can you fit everything in, in the right proportions?

Plan for screentime together… work it out together so that you and your child are clear that screentime is part of a day, not all of a day. Once you have decided how it’s going to fit into their routine (maybe just after bath time and before supper during the week and two hours on a Saturday afternoon), you need to address the what, where and when of screens.

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What are your kids doing online?

Content is king! Check whether the content/app they are accessing is safe, educational, age-appropriate, supporting (or, even, simply not eroding) their development and/or developing their language skills? If we use screens this way, we don’t need to worry nearly as much about screen time.

Screen time for pre-schoolers:

When considering apps for your pre-schooler, look for ones that encourage your child to create content (e.g., create a digital book) and communicate (e.g. read a book app and record your child’s voice), in addition to consumption apps (e.g. watching YouTube). Scary content, including the daily news and current affairs programs should be avoided when pre-schoolers are around as they don’t yet have the cognitive or emotional skills to process them.

Screen time for children aged 7 and older:

When it comes to social media apps, check out the Klikd website, our Klikd App reviews and our Klikd free downloadable resources if you want to check whether an app is age-appropriate and need info on how to use it safely.

Of course, there can be room for digital “treats” as long as the opportunity costs mentioned above are measured. An analogy that children can easily relate to is that we can’t fill our meal plates with sour worms and popcorn and hope to be full. Our digital plates are the same. We need healthy stuff to watch and a few odd treats too – maybe time to create TikToks is on the weekend and we can watch TikToks during the week. The point your child needs to understand is that not all screens are created equal – gaming for hours has a very different effect on our mood when compared to chatting to close friends on House Party for an hour.

When are our kids using screens? 

The time of the day when screens are viewed is an important factor to consider when setting out your screen time rules at home. We need to minimise the use of back-lit devices like tablets and smartphones in the 90-minute period before nap or sleep time. The blue light emitted by screens suppresses the body’s production of melatonin, which kids require to fall asleep quickly and easily. Actually, this applies to grownups too – ever been totally wired after scrolling through Instagram in bed?! It’s also worth considering controlling the WIFI access after a certain time at night for older kids.

young girl watching something on her tablet: screen time in children how much is enough and how much is too much

Where are our kids using screens? 

In order to ensure that the screens don’t displace too much of the good stuff and our plates aren’t entirely comprised of sour worms, it’s really important to preserve certain tech-free zones in our homes Ideally, meal times, play areas, bedrooms should be tech-free zones. Decide what tech-free zones and times are important to you as a family and make that a household rule.

Pre-schoolers:

Try to ensure that kids are using screens in publicly-accessible places at home so that parents can support their learning, keep them safe and hopefully prevent them from coming across things we don’t want them to see. We also recommend switching off the TV when no one is watching it as background TV can impede language skills and alter parent-child interactions.

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Kids 7 and older:

According to research by internet safety experts Protect Young Eyes, most poor digital choices made by kids (and adults) happen when what they call the “toxic trio” is in place: bedroom, boredom and darkness. Manage your kids’ use of their devices to avoid this toxic trio.

Practical tips for parents on managing screen time in children

You cannot be held hostage in your own home. Agree on limits (based on the above considerations) and then stick to them.

For younger kids:

This means agreeing to time limits based on the considerations above. For example, you can watch one episode of Paw Patrol after lunch or you can play on the iPad until the clock says 4 etc. To avoid screen-time meltdowns for younger kids when agreed screen time is up, here are three simple but practical tips:

  • Use a timer/ countdown method and give warnings (10 minutes, 5 minutes, 2 minutes) to make the transition less sudden.
  • Allow your child to be turn off the device him/herself to bring back a sense of control.
  • Provide an immediate trade-put activity such as “The TV is off, let’s put on music” to make the transition to screen-free time less dramatic.

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For older kids:

As soon as social media apps come into the mix, download the KLIKD social media contract (a free resource you can download HERE), for guidance on the how and the what you may want to include in your child’s digital future. Sign it together and pop the contract on the fridge as your reference point.

  • Step out of the struggle – remember that if your child does not stick to the agreed amount of digital “doughnuts” in the day, s/he is telling you that they are not ready for a screen. Simply say, “we both agreed on x amount of time in a day, I can see it’s hard for you to stick to that. When you are ready to try again let me know”. And then remove the phone for a while. Don’t bargain, don’t cave, just state in simple terms that their internal car isn’t getting what it needs and your job as his/her parent is to make sure it does. You may get a meltdown – but you will only get it once or twice if you stay calm and stick to the plan!
  • Get help where you need it: remember there are apps out there that can help little ones to know when ‘time is up’. Screentime on IOS and Family Link on Android help you monitor how much time is being spent and, more importantly, gives you the ability to switch your child’s screen off when you want to – but the caveat is a simple – apps like this make you (or the app) the policeman. The goal is to get your child to regulate him/herself willingly and happily not only because they know when enough is enough, but because they understand that they need more than just screen time to make their physical and emotional engines run at peak performance.
  • Giving your child a little autonomy, and then a little more as they show you that they can be trusted, will go a long way to building real connection between you and them. And, of course, it takes out the power play and that’s good news in anyone’s language.

Klikd has created a cyber safety education app covering everything from how to manage tricky people online, cyberbullying, online reputation to phone addiction and so much more. Each module also contains multi-faceted components to keep t/weens engaged throughout the learning journey. You can download the app by clicking HERE

Klikd interactive app logo
Klikd is an educational company focused on providing tools for busy families and professionals to flourish in a digital world. It was started by Sarah Hoffman and Pam Tudin and their flagship product, the Klikd app is an innovative educational app geared at equipping kids and teens to navigate the digital world safely and successfully, giving parents and educators the sigh of relief they have been waiting for.