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How Much Screen Time Should Kids Be Allowed Each Day?

How other play time may be more important.

One of the most common complaints I hear from parents in my practice is that their kids spend too much time staring at screens.

While this certainly may be the case, most of these parents could stand to take a good, long look in the mirror. In 2016, adults were spending an average of 9.5 hours with screen-based media per day, of which almost 8 hours was not related to work activities. Compare that to the most recent studies from Common Sense Media, which indicate that pre-teens are spending only 6 hours per day in front of a screen, and teens only 9 hours (though these figures do not include school work-related screen time).

While most parents, pediatricians, and psychologists agree that this is absolutely too much, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re all having a hard time managing our screen time, and there is little consensus on how much screen time kids should be allowed each day.

Some of the entertainment screen time of tweens and teens is spent listening to music and reading (about 80 minutes for tweens, and 140 minutes for teens). The biggest amount of time is spent watching TV, DVDs, and videos (about 2.5 hours for both groups). Both groups spend a little less than 1.5 hours playing video games, while teens spend almost the same amount of time on social media. While listening to music, reading, and even some social media are generally considered healthy activities for kids, they also spend many hours a day entertaining themselves in front of screens.

While much of children's’ screen time is healthy and productive (even limited amounts of social media, which can serve to keep kids socially connected and improve their self-awareness skills) this amount of entertainment-based screen time raises very legitimate concerns. From this perspective, it appears that the content of screen time, and the degree to which screen time substitutes for other healthy activities, may be the biggest concern when evaluating how much screen time kids should be allowed each day.

One study that examined only video-game play is particularly instructive. Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist based at the University of Oxford in England, found that playing three or more hours of video games a day led to increased levels of psychological maladjustment and lower levels of prosocial behavior and life satisfaction compared to playing for one hour a day. Interestingly, the same findings were observed in children who did not play any video games at all. In fact, while the kids who played between one and three hours a day demonstrated no discernable benefits or harm from their gameplay, the kids who played video games for just about an hour per day were actually healthier and happier than those who never played or those who played for more than three hours.

Przybylski hypothesizes that the healthiest children are the ones who benefit from having the social opportunities and cognitive challenges of video-game play, while also having time for other activities. These kids are “playing,” a key component for learning and social-emotional growth and also likely have time for other types of play. Yes, an hour per day of play is screen-based, but it's what many psychologists refer to as digital play. And, in the 21st century, digital play is a core activity for children and can help kids build their working memory, planning skills, and other executive functions. But if all children choose to do is engage in digital play, they will neglect other forms of play and miss out on many of the benefits of social, physical, creative, and unstructured play.

Back to our question: How much screen time should kids be allowed each day? Well, you now have a partial answer: one hour of playing video games every day is just about right. Of course, this does not take into account time spent with television, videos, social media, movies, or browsing the Internet... but who said the answer was going to be easy?

Keeping in mind our one-hour-per-day video game rule, we can start to answer the complete screen-time question with a simple premise: Most aspects of human behavior are healthiest when they are balanced and in proportion with each other. For example, neglecting one’s physical health by never exercising is certainly unhealthy, but so is exercising so much that your body breaks down and you constantly injure yourself. The same is certainly true for screen time: it has to be balanced with “no screen” time.

Achieving this balance requires what I call having a healthy “Play Diet,” which includes social, physical, creative, unstructured, and digital play (and is just as important for adults as it is for kids, by the way). Clearly, there are many benefits of digital play for children, yet excessive amounts are problematic in terms of physical, social, and emotional health issues. At the same time, in today's world, overly restricting screen time may keep children out of communication loops, restrict their learning and academic development, and keep them from activities they might find to be enriching or creatively stimulating.

Still, we need an answer to our question: How much screen time should kids be allowed each day? Keeping in mind the idea of maintaining a healthy play diet, I offer these guidelines as an answer:

  • Start with an hour a day of entertainment-based screen time, and, most importantly, embrace it as the healthy part of your child’s play diet that it is! Remember, though, this hour does not include time spent on a screen listening to music, reading, or doing productive, creative, and school-based activities.
  • Always consider the age of your child and the content of the screen-based media. Even an hour a day can be harmful if your child is spending it on age-inappropriate content.
  • Nurture your child’s other non-screen-based interests. The more time your child spends doing things like playing sports, going to dance classes, and playing outside, the less time they will even want to spend with screens.
  • Don’t worry too much if your child’s screen time drifts more towards two or even three hours per day. We all need breaks from our routines, and if screen time is a form of relaxation for your child, just be sure they are aware of their screen time and that they aren’t getting that much screen time every day. When you see these longer screen time days happening a lot, just work harder to ensure that your child is also engaged in other activities.
  • Pay attention if screen time is frequently more than three hours per day and address this promptly and seriously. Make sure that your child understands that watching a few more shows once in a while may be fine, but spending all day glued to their screen is not.
  • Trust your family sensibility around these issues. If you all spend a lot of time with screens, allow your child to spend a bit more too; if your family spends most of your free time outdoors or doing other non-screen-based-activities, allow a little less screen time.
  • Look at how your child is doing in the rest of his life. If your child is generally doing well academically, socially, and emotionally, then there probably isn’t a need for drastically restricting their screen time.
  • Remember that play—and in the 21s century, this includes digital play—is crucial to children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. Just because your child’s play looks different than yours did, that doesn’t mean that it’s any less normal, healthy, or important.
  • Put down your own devices! Kids learn far more by example than by proclamation, and if there’s one thing that all kids hate (especially teenagers), it’s being told to, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
  • Put more focus on encouraging non-screen-based activities than on restricting screen time. In the 21st century digital world, it takes a concentrated effort to make other activities more attractive than screen time, so you can’t just tell your child to get off of their devices and then expect them to automatically find something else that they like just as much. However, if you really take the time to share all of the “real world” activities and interests that you loved as a kid (or that you love now) with your own child, chances are that they will wind up enjoying a few of them as well.