Screen time for kids: How much is too much?

thRecently we had DF’s granddaughter over for about six hours. Midway through the visit I heard this conversation coming from the living room:

“You don’t have a TV.”

“That’s right,” DF replied.

“I want you to have a TV,” said Rose, who recently turned three.

“I don’t want a TV.”

“I want to watch TV,” she clarified.

“If you want a TV, you buy it,” DF replied.

Rose laughed merrily. “Noooo, Opa, you buy it.”

“We don’t need a TV here,” DF said.

A few seconds later Rose had forgotten about our household’s screenless state, being more interested in playing with a few ornaments from my tabletop Christmas tree.

Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics re-drew its recommendations on very young children and screen time. Back in 2011 the AAP had suggested no screen time at all before age two, and no more than two hours per day for kids older than that. Right around that time the first iPad appeared.


“Technology moves faster than science can study it, so we are perpetually behind in our advice and our recommendations,” noted Dr. Ari Brown, who chairs AAP’s children and media committee.

Brow also points out that “media” doesn’t necessarily mean television. There’s a difference, he said, between watching cartoons and doing a video chat with grandparents.

He did not weigh in on Candy Crush.



To be clear: Rose doesn’t spend all of her tiny life in front of a television. She’s in preschool part-time, where she learns letters and numbers and how to play with other kids, and is cared for by a family member the rest of the time.

But like many children in the United States, she’s exposed to Internet videos, smartphone games, TV and movies – some of it specifically aimed at kids, some not.

To be even clearer: I am not criticizing her upbringing; in fact, I think she’s a very lucky little girl. But I’m reminded once again how easily TV-watching becomes a habit.

There she was, playing contentedly and having just come off a bread-making adventure with her Opa when she suddenly remembered that there’s no television at our house. That thought apparently led to, “I want to watch a show.”

With everything else there was to do, she wanted TV. It reminded me of my tendency to stress-eat: Even though I may not be hungry I’ll want food. Specifically, I want pretzels or cookies or candy because those speak comfort to me.

Do I need them? Nope.

Will it kill me to eat them? Probably not right away. Point is, I don’t need them and they aren’t doing me much good.


Screen interaction is key

Ditto constant screen use. In moderation it probably won’t hurt your kids. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, who helped redraw AAP’s guidelines, thinks that 30 to 60 minutes per day of interactive media probably won’t be detrimental.

Reading a book on an iPad might not be any different from reading a physical book, he says, as long as it promotes “a platform for a parent and child to interact.”

Myself, I think there’s nothing like a real-world copy of “Goodnight Gorilla” or “The Paper Bag Princess” (especially for 4-year-old girls) to get kids interested in reading. A children’s book illustrator once told me her theory: That when kids are sitting on your lap or next to you on the couch, with a book at eye level, they actually enter the story.

I like that idea. I like it a lot.

How about it, readers: Do you limit screen time and if so, how?


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  1. This is a tricky one. We have just spent 4 months travelling and house sitting around our country. Our almost 5 year old came along. No screens in the car like many of her peers, no such distractions. Books, conversation, she has learned to read as we looked at street signs. At the house sits ( we did 5) there are TVs everywhere. In one house there were 4, one geared towards the kids with all the movies. I let her watch some TV in these environments because it is hard to prevent something that stares us in the face and there are only so many times one can say “no”. Of course we got out, swam, played games, read etc but at time we let her have the TV time. I object to screens as a form of electronic baby sitter. During Christmas time I saw plenty of very, very young kids with Smart Phones in their hands while parents shopped or moved about. This makes me sad. Our bigger family choice is we are about to settle and have the TV online to be sold as we speak. After a family discussion including our 5 year old we have decided to go without which suits me fine as we can watch a DVD from the library if we wish but I do not have to constantly be the meanie by saying no when it is staring me in the face.

  2. My children were born in 68, 70, and 75, so my experience, although relevant, was not the same experience my children have with my grandchildren. My children did not have the same choices. Captain Kangaroo was what they watched. They discovered cartoons very early but there weren’t extensive choices day and night.

    When I had two in school, they all played outdoors, usually their choice. But, they wanted to land in front of the TV. That made me crazy, so I instituted the “30-minutes-a-day” rule. I was the boss and they learned to live with it.

    They would be very good and quiet as another program came on so I would not realize what was happening. Once, I told my son to turn off the tv and he refused. I waded through them as they sat in front of the tv and pushed the button to turn it off. As I stepped back through them, my son sprung up and pulled the button to turn the tv on. I turned around, turned off the tv–okay,J, no tv for you tomorrow. He jumped up and turned it on again. I turned it off–Okay, j, no tv for two days. He turned it on again. I turned it off for the third time and I took tv from him for three days. Once again, I turned off the tv and faced him. “Do you want to try for a week?” He finally got the message!

    They could watch cartoons on Saturday morning until they fought and woke me.

    I, too, am appalled by children barely able to walk up to ten-year-olds sitting in the grocery cart, completely immersed in a screen.

  3. Most of my grands are pretty close in age being 10,7,6,6 and 2. I see a MAJOR difference in the 2 households in spite of all but the 2 y/o having their own computers.

    DD1 & spouse are NOT tv or other screen heavy users and neither are their 3 kids.

    DD2 & Xspouse are VERY into ALL tech and so are the 7 & 2 y/o. Kids actually fight over the ipad.

    It is only going to become more. All the school districts in the north & northwest of Chicago burbs are outfitting the kids with some kind of units to be theirs for use at both school & home.

  4. I have an 18 month old son and I do limit TV in a few ways. One is that the TV is NOT on in the background just to be on. That was a major bad habit my husband had before my son was born but we mutually decided to leave the TV off most of the time. The second is that all adult shows are watched after he is asleep, for a nap or at night. The third is that when he is allowed to watch, we preselect his program (we are up to three we allow him to watch) and use Netflix or DVR. We fast forward through commercials. The final way is time though this is the least strict of our parameters. I try for an hour or less a day. Most weekdays we easily hit that. Most weekends we struggle a bit and over the holidays it flew out the window entirely. But it is winter now and as the weather gets warmer, we will get out more and watch less.

    • Donna Freedman

      Fast-forwarding through commercials is particularly important, I think. He won’t want what he doesn’t know exists.

      Once he gets to school* he’ll learn all about the things he “needs” because other kids have them. But you’ve got a few years to formulate your responses.

      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

      *Unless you homeschool. But even so, neighborhood kids and maybe some other homeschoolers will likely clue him in.

      • Another option (which will work from about age 2-3 I guess) is to explain to a child that the TV commercials are expensive for companies and that they are aimed at (and paid for by) making children buy all these things. That diminishes the influence.

        • Donna Freedman

          In some cases this is true, yes. But small children (and some bigger ones) are so blinded by the glittery promise that it can be hard to stop the wants, the wants, the wants.

          Never stop trying to make them into informed consumers, yes. But limiting the amount of exposure when they’re young is important. After all the folks who make the commercials hire experts on making the items look irresistible. This works on us adults, too: How many times have you seen something on TV or in a print ad that momentarily knocked you off the Sensible Wagon? Wantwantwantwantwant…Oh, wait. No I don’t. Well, I don’t need it. But damn it’s pretty!

          See my daughter’s post for more on what commercials can do to kids (it’s pretty funny):

          Thanks for reading.

  5. I don’t have kids, so I don’t have to make this decision.

    Growing up, we watched TV for a bit in the morning before school, and after school cartoons for a bit – sometimes. From 6pm to bedtime, my father controlled the television – and the kids would do other things. When I was in high school, all my friends would talk about the shows they watched in the evenings – and I had never seen any of them. When I was 15 our family got a second television – but with 4 kids fighting for the opportunity to play video games, we spent a lot of time sharing 🙂

    My friend’s 4 year old son has grown up with the ipad and iphone – the kid has no idea that there is anything OTHER than touch screen to control your computer 🙂 He has a congenital heart defect and has been in the hospital and doctor’s offices nearly more than he’s been out of it – the ipad and iphone are *amazing* at keeping a little boy somewhat occupied and content when he is stuck in a hospital bed, again. So in that way, I am glad they exist for him and other kids in his situation – life would be a lot harder without them.

    • Donna Freedman

      Agree on the iPad. They’re also great for long plane trips. But I know that some kids will play for hours on end on the iPad or smartphone or games system — if you let them. Balance is important, and if the kids start throwing fits when the items are taken away that would be a sign that they’re using them too much.

  6. Cathy in NJ

    I just found out there is another thing that happens when you spend too much time on the screens as a kid. You don’t know where you are going, the street name or the routes to get you there. When my 16 year old daughter started driving on her permit, I was shocked to discover that she didn’t know how to get to her favorite stores or almost anywhere.

    Ages ago when I started driving, I knew where everything was, the roads to get there and also many street names because I spent my idle moments in the car looking out the window. My daughter was clueless because she spent her car ride moments deep in the screens. Minecraft will not teach you the way to the Mall.

    • Donna Freedman

      Interesting! Then again, I expect a lot of young drivers expect to use GPS through their smartphones to tell them how to get around.

      • Make Do Mom

        Yes, you are absolutely right about the GPS. As a side gig I teach court ordered Defensive Driving classes to high school and college students. I am sad that most do not know how to navigate without GPS. I am aghast that most do not have the foggiest idea what to do when their GPS sends them to the wrong destination!

  7. And let me add one more caveat to the very young watching a lot television, the very early sexualization of little girls. OMG, I find it terrifying. My six year old granddaughter wants to have her picture taken with a “pouty” look on her face while she messes up her hair. She sees this on TV all the time and her family has the TV on ALL the time. And her latest routine in her dance class featured so much pelvic thrusting that her grandfather and I were embarrassed to be watching it.

  8. Michelle

    My partner and I have a two-year-old son, and while we don’t have a “rule” as of yet for screen time, it is limited by the fact that our TV is in the basement (not the main living area), so we have to specifically go there to watch. We don’t have cable, and – at this point – the only program he wants to watch is Thomas the Train (on Netflix, so no commercials). We use it to relax on the weekend mornings together, or if he’s not feeling well. Otherwise, he’s not in front of the screen. He also likes to look at pictures on our phones and watch videos (particularly of the grandparents). I’m not much into technology myself, which I think makes a difference. I also read a study recently that discourages toys that make noise because it discourages the interaction between kids and parents — when the flashing lights go and the toy tells you to do something, it stifles creativity and imagination. Simple is good!

  9. Our 15 y.o. is probably the only one in his 9th grade class of 50 students to not have a smartphone. Our district is not wealthy, so many of the students are from lower-middle class families or possibly even lower on the socioeconomic scale, so it seems this issue affects all children these days.

    We also limit his computer time and his video game time. He also has a handheld video game which we probably don’t monitor as much as we should. I still think it is too much for him, but I cannot get my husband to budge on this. We don’t let him watch TV before school, because he gets distracted by it and almost misses the bus!I have noticed that in the evenings he has been deciding to spend time in his room either reading or who knows what else, but it’s not in front of a screen, since there are none in there.

  10. Donna, We did not have a tv for more than ten years when the children were growing up, haven’t had cable for nearly 20 years now. “I don’t have cable, I have kids.” The older girl is a two time scholarship winner with a Masters degree from one of the top 20 universities in the world, (and a nearly free year in an historic city far from home, she had a blast!) I could never have afforded to send her on my own. The second daughter will start university soon. Slightly dyslexic, she is doing very well in spite of occasional frustration. She is also very gifted, just not academically. My older daughter’s friends got together for her birthday last month.Their collective gift to her? The most recent MannBooker prizewinner’s book, by a writer from the region (the Caribbean). Her friends know she is a reader and a writer(among other things). Her dyslexic sister is always reading some book on her phone. A good book is a pathway to the whole world, we all want to give our kids that.

  11. Just curious: does the little girl speak Dutch? I am Dutch and Opa is our word for Grandpa!


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