Screen Time Usage and Back to School Preparation

Research highlights tips for digital media use for children.

Posted Aug 02, 2018

The use of technology and digital media continues to increase across America. As adults, we often use mobile devices to access email, watch television, or use social media apps such as Instagram or Facebook. For many parents, the use of tablets and smartphones also provide an outlet for their children while traveling on road trips or simply an activity to pass the time. The American Psychological Association reports that approximately 53% of children (ages 8-12) and 67% of adolescents have their own cell phone. Earlier this year, researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center reported that over 90% of children (ages 2 or younger) are exposed to media with estimates ranging from one to seven hours per day with older children using more technology (Horowitz‐Kraus & Hutton, 2018).

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Although technology has certain advantages, research also finds that increased screen time – which includes smartphones, tablets, desktop or laptop computers and television – have negative effects on youth such as language delay, obesity, decreased readiness for kindergarten and other academic problems (Horowitz‐Kraus & Hutton, 2018). On the other hand, the authors note that reading exposure has been strongly correlated with increased receptive and expressive language, mastery of print concepts and attitudes towards reading, which in turn predict future reading practices and academic achievement. In their study, Horowitz‐Kraus and Hutton (2018) found that parents reported their children spent an average of 3.89 hours per week on screen‐time activities and about 4.00 hours per week on independent reading. However, the study found that only screen time was negatively related with decreased neural functioning in areas of the brain associated with language, visual processing and cognitive abilities. Optimal functioning in these areas are important to academic functioning and success in the classroom.

Tips for Managing Screen Time

As the school year approaches, it is time to prepare for a successful year and identify the most appropriate ways to manage the use of digital media. Below are some recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

1. Make your own family media use plan. Media should work for you and within your family values and parenting style. When used thoughtfully and appropriately, media can enhance daily life. But when used inappropriately or without thought, media can displace many important activities such as face-to-face interaction, family-time, outdoor-play, exercise, unplugged downtime and sleep. Make your plan at

2. Set limits and encourage playtime.  Media use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Unstructured and offline play stimulates creativity. Make unplugged playtime a daily priority, especially for very young children.

3. Limit digital media for your youngest family members. Avoid digital media for toddlers younger than 18 to 24 months other than video chatting. For children 18 to 24 months, watch digital media with them because they learn from watching and talking with you. Limit screen use for preschool children, ages 2 to 5, to just 1 hour a day of high-quality programming.

4. Don't use technology as an emotional pacifier.  Media can be very effective in keeping kids calm and quiet, but it should not be the only way they learn to calm down. Children need to be taught how to identify and handle strong emotions, come up with activities to manage boredom, or calm down through breathing, talking about ways to solve the problem, and finding other strategies for channeling emotions. If behavior problems occur, consider appropriate consultation with a mental health provider.

5. Remember: Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. Try to handle errors with empathy and turn a mistake into a teachable moment. But some indiscretions, such as sexting, bullying, or posting self-harm images, may be a red flag that hints at trouble ahead. Parents must observe carefully their children's behaviors and, if needed, enlist supportive professional help, including the family pediatrician.

6. Be a good role model.  Teach and model kindness and good manners online. Because children are great mimics, limit your own media use. In fact, you'll be more available for and connected with your children if you're interacting, hugging and playing with them rather than simply staring at a screen. 

Copyright 2018 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.


Horowitz‐Kraus, T., & Hutton, J. S. (2018). Brain connectivity in children is increased by the time they spend reading books and decreased by the length of exposure to screen‐based media. Acta Paediatrica, 107(4), 685-693.