Setting and Enforcing Screen Time for Children

See also: Social Skills for Children

Screen time – the amount of time spent in front of a screen, be it television, computer monitor, tablet or smartphone – is an increasingly contentious issue.

While parents have long viewed the television as the ‘electronic babysitter’, many are increasingly concerned that today’s children are subject to significantly more screen time than any previous generation.

But what are the possible and likely effects of screen time? And what is the ‘correct’ amount, and how can you enforce it?

This page provides information about the current evidence and recommendations, and advice about how to find your way through the ‘screen time maze’.

The Screen Time Situation

Screen time is, quite literally, any time spent in front of a screen. For most previous generations of children, that meant television. But today’s children have far more options, with laptops, tablets, smartphones and other screens everywhere.

A frightening thought

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two do not watch any television or interact with any electronic screens at all. There are few formal studies of the effect of television and screen usage on development. However, evidence is growing that early television and screen usage may be linked to developmental disorders such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The reason? The first two years of development are crucial to learning to interact with other people. If their parents use screens as a way of distracting small children, those children may never learn how to communicate.

What about older children, and adults?

Experts are increasingly suggesting that too much screen time is also bad for them.

A 2015 study at Cambridge University compared the activities of more than 800 14-year-olds with their GCSE grades two years later. An extra hour per day of screen time was linked to a reduction in GCSE grades of two grades (a grade lower in each of two subjects). Two extra hours resulted in the equivalent of a grade lower in each of four subjects.

What’s more, the link to screen time was stronger than the link to amount of time studying, so it is not that screen time reduced study time.

Frighteningly, however, a recent survey by found that children spent an average of 17 hours per week in front of a screen. This was almost double the 8.8 hours spent playing outside.

Problems Associated with Screen Time

If it is not reduced study time, what is the problem with screen time?

Unfortunately, there appear to be several issues associated with screen time.

  • Building habits for later life

    Evidence suggests that viewing habits developed in childhood tend to be perpetuated into adulthood. In other words, develop the habit of spending a lot of time sitting down at a computer, television or games console when you are a child and you will become a sedentary adult. This, of course, has implications for your health (and you may want to read more about the importance of exercise).

  • Generating addictions

    Addiction is a strong word, but it is one that many experts use for computer gaming. The release of the ‘reward chemical’, dopamine, is associated with addiction, and also with the feeling of pleasure on ‘winning’ a computer game.

    High levels of computer gaming, therefore, exposes those involved to high levels of dopamine, which means that they need to do more and more to get a real ‘hit’ from the chemical. This may lead to other addictive behaviours as children grow older, as well as the need to play more and more games.

  • Affecting sleep

    It is generally agreed that children need more sleep than adults. It is also generally agreed that watching electronic screens in the hour or so before settling down to sleep can disrupt the chemicals in the body that help you sleep.

    For more about this, see our pages on Sleep.

    The conclusion is fairly obvious. Children who use electronic screens extensively may struggle to sleep.

    Experts therefore recommend banning electronic devices from children’s bedrooms.

  • Social isolation

    Many people have suggested that the rise in social media and communication online have affected our ability to communicate face-to-face. Others have pointed out that we are able to maintain relationships more effectively with more people using social media, but there is no question that we tend to communicate less in person as a result.

    Case study: Enforcing communication skills

    The manager of Southampton Football Club, in the UK, has introduced compulsory ‘communication sessions’ for his players. He noticed that, in marked contrast to his peers 15 or 20 years ago, his young players rarely talked to each other after training or on coaches to games, preferring to plug into social media. They therefore found it difficult to communicate effectively on the pitch.

    He has introduced sessions to help them to communicate with each other more effectively: a skill which previous generations learned automatically.

  • Effect on ability to concentrate

    The fast-moving screen activity, and rapid changes of pace during computer games, seem to have an effect on children’s ability to concentrate for long periods. Although largely anecdotal, many young people report that they ‘cannot be bothered’ to read a book, because it takes too long.

    This change in concentration span inevitably affects study, and may be the main reason why GCSE results were lower in those who spent more time engaged with electronic devices.

Limiting Screen Time

So what can parents do to reduce screen time?

Experts suggest that the answer is daily limits to all screen time, including television, tablets and games consoles.

Government guidelines on screen time from around the world

Country Advice or Regulations
Australia Television should not be aimed at children under three years of age.
Canada Television should not be aimed at children under three years of age.
France No digital terrestrial TV can be broadcast aimed at children under three years of age.
Taiwan Parents must monitor their children’s screen time. The government can levy fines on parents whose children use electronic devices for ‘excessive’ lengths of time.
UK Guidance from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health suggests that parents should adjust screen time for children based on their “developmental age and individual needs”. Screen time should not interrupt positive activities like exercising, playing and socialising with other children and adults.

The NHS Choices website quotes a study which found that children who watch more than two hours’ television per day are at increased risk of high blood pressure
USA No screen time for children under two years of age.

Older children should have no more than two hours of screen time each day.

Expert advice is even more limiting:

  • Children under two should not be exposed to any electronic devices, including television.
  • From two to five, children should have no more than one hour of screen time per day.
  • Children aged from five to 18 should have no more than two hours per day.

For teenagers, whose homework often requires time spent at a computer, this may be tricky, but experts suggest that the danger is leisure use, and that you may therefore want to discount homework time from the total.

World Health Organization Guidelines

In April 2019, the World Health Organization issued its first guidelines discussing screen time for children. The guidelines set screen time firmly into the context of the level of children’s activity more generally, and are aimed at avoiding obesity. The guidelines state:

  • Children under the age of two should have no ‘sedentary’ screen time (time spent sitting in front of a screen);
  • Children between two and five years old should spend no more than one hour per day in front of a screen;
  • Children over the age of one should be moving about for three hours per day;
  • Over three year olds should be involved in more vigorous activity—running about as well as walking, for at least one hour per day;
  • Very young children should not be restrained in car seats, buggies (strollers) or high chairs for more than one hour at a time, so that sedentary time is broken up by moving about.

The bottom line, it seems, is that there is little or no evidence that screen time itself is damaging. The problem is that it replaces other, more beneficial activity.

Parents are therefore advised to ensure that children get plenty of activity, and interactive play with adults and other children, rather than passively looking at screens.

Top Tips for Limiting Screen Time

Of course it will be hard to limit screen time, especially if your children are used to having more than you wish to allow. But here are some tips to help.

  • Involve children in the rule-setting

    It will be easier if children understand why the rules have been set, and have participated in the setting. Allow them to negotiate within an overall framework: they may, for example, prefer to have more screen time at weekends, and less during the week, with an overall weekly limit, rather than the same allowance each day.

  • Set rules but allow some flexibility

    It may be easier if you allow your children to negotiate even within the rules. For example, if they have a friend round, they may want a bit longer to play a game together that day, resulting in less screen time the next day. Or you may say that they can have a bit longer if they first spend some time outside in the garden.

  • Abide by the rules yourself

    It is no good expecting your children to do without screens at mealtimes if you are still firmly glued to your phone. Make mealtimes a family activity, and have designated no-technology zones that you, too, abide by. This should include bedrooms.

    Remember: you are a role model for your children, and you need to act appropriately.

  • Exclude education time

    You may have a serious rebellion on your hands if you include homework time in the total screen time allowance. Instead, monitor screen use for homework, and ensure that it is not interrupted by leisure use.

  • Removing access later is far harder than denying it in the first place

    Think before you say ‘yes’ the first time. Your refusal may create a storm, but that may be better than setting up a pattern that you later have to disrupt.

  • Monitor and enforce

    It is no good setting rules if you do not monitor and enforce them. This may sound like hard work, but it is worth doing in the long term, not least because you will become much more aware of what your children are doing!

  • Offer alternatives

    It may be hard to break existing habits, for both you and your children. You may be using technology to keep your children entertained, and finding an alternative can be difficult. For some ideas, see our pages on entertaining children, including Craft Activities for Children, Cooking with Children and Gardening with Children.