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Navigating Screen Time by Age: Strategies to Help Your Child Unplug

By Andrea Karin Nelson
January 16, 2024
Mother and child looking at tablet together

Parents are told all the time how important it is that kids not get too much screen time. But how much is too much? How do you know when you’ve reached that point? And — most importantly — how do you get your kid to actually step away from the screen? We break down recommended screen time by age, plus tips to help your child put down their screens when time is up. 

Recommended screen time by age

While headlines often depict screen time as a black-and-white issue, suggesting immediate dire consequences if your child exceeds screen time limits by even a minute, the actual research is less conclusive and expert recommendations are more nuanced.

Here are the current guidelines from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP): 

  • Under 2: No screen time, with the exception of video chats. 
  • Ages 2-5: Limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours per day on weekends.
  • Ages 6+: Encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens.

Signs your child is getting too much screen time

If the lack of definitive guidelines for older children, teens, and tweens leaves you feeling like you’re floundering in the dark, don’t worry. There’s still plenty of expert guidance to help you determine when your child is getting too much screen time so you can adjust accordingly. 

Here are some signs to watch for: 

  • Disrupted sleep 
  • Trouble stopping screen time when asked 
  • New or worsening behavioral problems 
  • Impaired academic performance 
  • Difficulty focusing 

Tips for reigning in screen time by age

Below, we’ll walk through some tips to set boundaries around screen time in and around the home. It’s a good idea to lay out these rules in a digital device contract that you discuss with your kids and revisit as they grow older. 

Younger kids

For preschool- and elementary-aged kids, parents should still be fairly involved in their screen-time routine. 

Tips for younger kids: 

  • Screen time limits: Although experts don’t specify a set number of hours for kids over six, that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t set limits. Look at your family’s routine and consider your child’s schedule, temperament, and needs when deciding how much is too much. 
  • Use parental controls: In addition to using parental controls to limit inappropriate content, many devices allow you to also set screen time limits. For example, Apple Family Sharing is a free, robust suite of features that allow you to set a screen time schedule for your child’s devices, among other helpful features.

Tweens

By the time kids reach their middle school years, parents can start giving a little more leeway, but should maintain plenty of hands-on involvement. 

Tips for tweens:

  • More flexible limits: Instead of a set amount of screen time each day, you might try other limits such as finishing all homework first or no screens after dinner. 
  • Talk about healthy screen habits: Educate your child on the consequences of too much screen time. Help them learn to recognize for themselves when they’ve overdone it.

Teens

The teenage years are a time for preparing to be an adult while still under the watchful eye and protective wing of actual adults. Teens still need some guardrails, but it’s important they start learning how to manage their own screen habits. 

Tips for teens: 

  • No-phone zones: Establish areas of the home where phones aren’t allowed, such as bedrooms or the dining table. This creates natural device barriers and encourages healthy habits. 
  • Screen-free times: Decide when screens are a no-go, such as before school, during dinner, or an hour before bed. 
  • Use apps: Apps aimed at helping users understand and regulate their screen time can be a valuable tool as teens have more autonomy with their devices. 

Additional tips for all ages

Regardless of your child’s age, here are some tips to help limit their screen time: 

  • Encourage other activities: Getting your child involved in extracurriculars or encouraging them to pursue a hobby can naturally limit their screen time because they will be busy with other things. 
  • Plan screen-free family time: Activities like family game night, bowling, or hiking are fun ways to get your kids away from their screens. 
  • Lead by example: Examine your own screen habits and see where you can cut down. Not only will this benefit your health and wellbeing, but it also sets a great example for your kids to follow.  
  • Adjust as needed: Remember, nothing is set in stone. If you realize your approach is either too strict or too permissive, it can always be adjusted.  

The takeaway 

Screens are an unavoidable part of modern life, but it’s important that children develop healthy limits around their use. Parents should adjust their approach as children age to help them maintain balance and learn how to manage screen time on their own.