How Much Time Should Children Spend Watching Screens at Home?

I begin with the statement that, like teaching, there is no one best way of parenting. Good parenting comes in all sizes and colors.

Saying that, however, does little to help those parents who, surrounded by mind-altering noise hyping new technologies, face the persistent dilemma of deciding which high-tech devices they should allow their preschoolers to use. And once decided, how much time should young children use devices at home (preschoolers also watch screens with a teacher and aide in the room).

The value of having children handle devices and become technologically proficient competes with the value of active children playing and working with others and not passively watching television or playing the same game hours on end on gadgets. Values conflict. What devices and how much time to allow?

Boy and girl smile while playing video game on laptop.

Parents have three choices in managing the dilemma of how much screen time and high-tech devices should their children use at home and at school. Doing nothing and going with the flow–acceding to their son’s or daughter’s request for the newest device is what many parents do. A second option is to make deliberate choices based on parents’ values–rules for television watching, ditto for cell phones. A third choice is to decide on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, combinations of these choices get made as children get older and parents experience untoward events (e.g., unemployment, divorce, illness, death).

Parents of infants, toddlers, and young children must decide daily because of the array of screens that their children have access to as no other generation has ever had. Although I know this from reading articles and watching younger colleagues and friends raise their children, nonetheless, the facts of how much screen time young children spend with computers, television, and games still surprised me.

In 2011, a survey of parents reported that:

“[K]ids ages 2  through 5 watch more TV (including DVD and videos) than kids ages 6 through 11 do. And between the ages of 7 and 9, children shift to more interactive pastimes: 70% of 8-year-olds play video games, whereas less than half of 6-year-olds do…. Computers are accessed even more frequently with 85 % of parents reporting that their children use them. But the oldest medium we inquired about remains the favorite: 95% of 3-to-10 year-olds watch TV.”

In 2019, Common Sense Media found that 8- to 12-year-olds in the United States use screens for an average of 4 hours, 44 minutes a day, and 13- to 18-year-olds are on screens for an average of 7 hours, 22 minutes each day ( The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens , 2019 ). These numbers don’t count time using screens for schoolwork or homework.

What do professionals recommend?

Like parents, professional opinion can be arrayed along a continuum. At one end are those teachers (e.g., Waldorf educators) and scholars (e.g.,  Jane Healy) who advocate little exposure for infants, toddlers, and young children. The Alliance for Childhood, a group of educators and parents, for example, publishedFool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood” in 1999 (see researcher Doug Clements estimate of that publication– Critique Fool’s Gold).

At the other end of the professional continuum on technology are those school staffs who have yet to meet a high tech device they didn’t adore. They buy up iPads as if it were Halloween candy. And in the middle range are most early childhood educators who try to figure out what is best for infants, toddlers, and young children in a world where keeping up with changes in high-tech communication and information is nearly impossible.

Take the National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC)–a group of educators and parents committed to the intellectual, psychological, emotional, physical, and creative growth of children. They published a position statement on technology in 1996. In 2010, a draft of a new position paper was published for comment (4-29-2011-1 ). They, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, urge parents (and teachers) to be thoughtful and deliberate in the use of high-tech devices that are matched to the age and intellectual and psychological development of the child.

So where are we in helping parents with young children and early childhood professionals decide what to do in the midst of new technologies aimed at young children as toys and learning machines much less school professionals buying iPads for preschoolers?  Spread across a continuum are groups and individuals who question any use for toddlers to those who urge thoughtful, case-by-case use, to those who queue up to buy the latest learning gadget.

The good news is that there are choices that parents can make if they know what they value and calculate the tradeoffs in making decisions–actually negotiating compromises among themselves and with their children–on any one high-tech device; the bad news is that conflict-filled dilemmas in raising the young have no simple solutions; they can be only managed again and again.



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7 responses to “How Much Time Should Children Spend Watching Screens at Home?

  1. Regarding your opening line. John Lennon once said, ‘the best way to write songs is the way that works for you’. Ditto for teaching and parenting.

  2. David F

    Hi Larry, FYI, I just read this interview in Slate with Mitch Prinstein, the Chief Science Officer at the American Psychological Association on kids and social media.

    The money quote comes at the end:

    “I assume if I buy a toy off a shelf in a normal toy store, someone has had to make sure that thing is safe. It’s not going to explode in my kid’s face. Parents now are shocked to realize, “Wait a minute. No one is looking over social media. Nobody has made sure this is safe. I gave it to my kid to use for an hour while I was folding my laundry, but I’m basically handing my kids’ development over to someone who’s looking to make a profit.” That’s a rude awakening. Now, we have to change that either by creating some oversight or by parents saying, “Wait a minute, I have to put way more restrictions on this than I realized.””

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