Help kids understand why limits are important and worthwhile.
Two hours (or fewer) per day.
That’s the most kids should be viewing or using screens in a day—for recreational reasons. It’s the “two” in the 5-2-1-0 program to promote healthy habits in young people. (This does not include time on screens for online school or other required educational studies.)
Why should families pay attention to how much time they spend on screens?
“There are many reasons to follow this guideline,” said Serena Black, MD, a pediatrician in Springfield, Oregon and the medical director of Pediatrics at PeaceHealth.
From a physical standpoint, here are just a few reasons to limit time screen time:
- Screen-based activities are typically sedentary. Whether watching a show or playing a game on a television, tablet, laptop or cell phone, many of us sit or lie down to do it. Sitting for long periods of time can lead to various health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure and other metabolic-related conditions.
- Screens take a toll on eye health. Studies show that prolonged exposure to screens (computer, tablet or mobile phone) can cause eyestrain. Read how screens can affect children’s eye health.
- Backlit screens can disrupt sleep. Spending time on screens within one to two hours of bedtime can disturb natural sleep rhythms—making it difficult to fall asleep. Explore sleep tips for children and teens.
From a mental or social standpoint, here are additional considerations:
- Online games can trigger stress hormones. Kids of all ages love playing games. Online games—even the nonviolent ones—are addictive. Would it surprise you that playing games can raise a player’s blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar?
- Screen time can promote isolation. The more time children spend online by themselves, the less time they are engaging with others. That’s not how humans were designed—we need to be in contact with one another in real space and time.
- Social media can increase feelings of anxiety. This can be particularly challenging for teens and young adults. Social media puts them at risk for exposure to cyberbullying and more harmful forms of peer pressure. Learn how to manage stressful feelings.
While there’s a lot of excellent content online—from educational programming to inspiring entertainment—limiting children’s time online is equally positive.
“It’s about balance and finding time to also include movement activities and social connections in your day,” said Dr. Black.
Consider that most elementary-aged children have about 13 waking hours every day. Most of those hours should be filled with eating, schooling, chores, physical play and exercise, bathing, brushing and getting dressed in the morning or ready for bed at night.
Here are a few tips to keep recreational screen time to two hours or less each day.
- Model digital discipline. As a parent or other adult in a child’s life, turn off your phone a couple hours before bedtime. If you don’t need your device for work or other obligations, take extended breaks from your phone or laptop. Challenge yourself to observe the two-hour daily screen limit yourself.
- Set clear expectations. Outline some simple rules that will work for your family’s routines. Do you have a set time period for games or videos? Do you set a timer for 15-minute increments of screen time? Are screens OK on the way to school drop-off or after soccer practice? Consider writing your rules down for the whole family’s reference.
- Plan screen time choices. At the start of each week, ask your child to pencil out how they want to spend their screen time. This can help prioritize what content or programming means the most to them. It also sends the signal that they can’t watch or do it all.
- Use tech settings. Shut off your Wi-Fi signal during dinner or at bedtime. You can also use “quiet time” or “focus” settings on devices to reinforce your family screen-use rules.
- Buy or borrow physical books. E-books are convenient, but books with paper pages can help your child stay focused on reading without the temptation to switch to another screen-based activity.
- Help other parents. Work with other families to support screen-free times. Set up playdates that encourage kids to use their imaginations such as dress-up and skits or building projects with Legos or boxes.
- Explore offline options. Have your kids make a list of the in real life (IRL) activities they like or want to try. Add your own ideas to make it a joint effort—then work toward making them happen.
- Call Mother Nature. “Go outside to play” is a bit of sage advice from our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. it may be “old school,” but modern science backs up the fact that spending time in nature relieves stress, helps us slow down and connect with each other and with what’s meaningful in the real world.
Talk with your child’s pediatrician at the next office visit about strategies for making step-by-step changes that will stick. And be sure to have your child regularly see their eye doctor to check their vision. Read more on vision screening and eye exams for children.
This article is the third in a series about the 5-2-1-0 approach to promoting healthy habits.