Screen Time

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What’s wrong with screens?

On their own? Nothing! In fact, many people enjoy passing time (e.g., TV shows) or building connections with others (e.g., video calls with family members) on screens.

The problem comes up when:

  • The child isn’t doing activities that are expected of them (e.g., learning, time with family and friends).
  • The child isn’t developing other hobbies due to excessive screen time.
  • Screen time is negatively affecting the way the child thinks (e.g., their attention, statements they make about themselves), feelings (e.g., their mood), or acts (e.g., imitating inappropriate behaviors they see during screen time, throwing tantrums if they don’t get screen time).

Excessive screen time can become an issue for people of all ages, including children and adults!

What is appropriate screen use?

Screen time can be appropriate when it’s focused on learning (e.g., academic enrichment websites), joint entertainment (e.g., watching a movie together as a family), or connecting with others (e.g., playing an online multiplayer video game, messaging friends). However, even these activities can become a problem if there aren’t clear expectations about when, where, and how long children can engage in screen time.

When should you be concerned about screen use?

Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Child has difficulty ending screen time. The child has difficulty stopping screen time and consistently asks to continue. This is particularly true if you have already set clear expectations ahead of time and/or they have already spent a significant amount of time on the screen time activity.
  • Child’s emotions are impacted by screen time. Some children, especially tweens and teens, may use screens to regulate their emotions (e.g., needing screen time to “cheer up”), which can contribute to long-term emotional challenges. They may also regularly become emotional when on a screen (e.g., they get really upset and it’s difficult to soothe them).
  • Child spends less time on other activities. The child is spending less time with their friends/family or is no longer engaging in non-screen related activities (e.g., sports, reading).

What can you do as a parent/caregiver?

There are some key steps you can take to support the appropriate use of screens:

  • Model appropriate screen use. You are an important role model in the use of screens! Consider your own screen use and what messages you are sending by what, when, where, how, and how much you use screens. Don’t forget that screens include anything from smartphones to TVs!
  • Know what your kids are doing on screens. Limit access to content that is not age-appropriate. You can also manage how much your child is online. Technology is your friend: use the settings to monitor and block content you do not want your kids to access. With older children, it is helpful to tell them and be transparent about what you do and do not want them accessing. Explain to them why some websites are not appropriate.
  • Establish clear expectations and boundaries (for everyone in the home). Establishing boundaries about what, when, where, how, and how much screen time is appropriate for your family is important. For older children, a more collaborative approach is often best. Including them in the decision-making process can increase cooperation from the child.  
  • Identify alternative activities (instead of screen time). Consider what your family and your child would do if there wasn’t access to screens. Sometimes it’s helpful to observe what your child enjoys doing when they don’t have access to screens. Here’s a list of some potential non-screen activities:
    • Read a book or magazine
    • Play board games (e.g., checkers), card games, or puzzles
    • Play with remote control toys (e.g., cars, drones)
    • Go outside to ride a bike/scooter
    • Walk around the neighborhood
    • Go to the park, mall, or library
    • Take a hike
    • Build a model (e.g., car, airplane)
    • Bake a dessert/cook a meal together
    • Play dress up
    • Do artwork/draw/paint
    • Have a scavenger hunt
    • Play hide-and-seek
    • Build a fort (inside or outside)
    • Play with blocks/playdough
    • Visit a friend/family member
    • Shoot hoops or play another sport
    • Write in a journal
    • Call someone and talk to them on the phone
    • Play darts/ping pong/pool
    • Work in the garden
    • Play an instrument
    • Go to a dessert/coffee shop

These enjoyable activities may take some more time and planning, especially since screens are usually easy to access and provide immediate entertainment. To set your child up for success, try having conversations around structuring times for them to have non-screen activities. Also, engaging in these activities with your child (or as a whole family) will likely make this an easier and more rewarding experience.

  • Pay attention to your child’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Notice what your child is saying, how they’re feeling, and what they’re doing. If they seem affected by screen time, talk with your child about what you are observing. Ask them if they see things the way you do. Focus the conversation first on understanding followed by empathy.
    • Create a “safe space” for your child. Allow your child to “talk it out” without judgment. Try not to jump into “fixing” the issue. See additional guidance in the Parent Teen Negotiation guide.
  • Help your child recognize their emotions and how those emotions feel in their body. You could ask questions like, “What does your body tell you when you are feeling ____?” You can also model this by talking about how it feels in your body when you feel different emotions (e.g., “When I feel anxious, my muscles feel really tight and I start to breathe faster. How about you?”). See additional guidance in the Emotion Coaching guide.

Between Session Practice:

What are your current concerns about your child’s screen time and use?

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How can you monitor your child’s screen time/use?

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What rules do you have (or want to set) for your family around screen time?

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How will you talk to your child about screen time/use? Consider when and where you’ll have this conversation as well as which screens (e.g., phone, TV).

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What are some activities that your child can engage in that do not involve screens?

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