How Much Screen Time is Too Much?

I was meeting with a family of a 7 year old whose favorite activity is time on his iPad.  “Is too much screen time making my child more easily frustrated?” asked the parents.  Later in the interview, they noted challenges with their older children.  “Could my tween’s ‘multitasking’ while doing homework be the reason that her grades are suffering?”  Finally, they asked about their son in high school.  “What is the impact of sleeping each afternoon after school on my son’s ability to fall asleep at night?”

Parents may not know it when they ask me these seemingly distinct questions that the common denominator is too much screen time.  It may not come from a single source.  Some children are preoccupied with videogames, such as Minecraft.  Other children are much more focused on social media.   Meanwhile, we often overlook the ubiquitous presence of the TV, which is broadcasting advertising non-stop in many American homes.  On the surface, they are different, but in reality they are all competing for the eyeballs of our children.  Thankfully, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recently updated their guidelines on the amount of screen time that is recommended for children of different ages (see the Resources list below).

Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, shared the secrets that parents suspected:  social media companies and device manufacturers have methods to attract users to their site in hopes of keeping them glued there.  He calls it “the Attention Economy”.  However, the more apt description, also attributed to Harris, is “the race to the bottom of the brain.”  The most evolved portion of the brain, the frontal lobes, sit atop the emotional parts of the brain, which are associated with pleasure seeking and addiction.    Researchers at UCLA have noted that when a social media post receives lots of likes, the reward circuitry of the brain is activated, which can trigger urges for more.  Meanwhile, the frontal lobes are passive.

The Royal Society for Public Health in the United Kingdom published a recent review of the most common social media sites.  It concludes that “Instagram and Snapchat have the greatest negative effect on young people’s emotional health.”  These sites create an unrealistically happy and attractive view of everyday life.  Girls with insecurity regarding their body image are likely to see themselves as inadequate compared with the posts they view on-line.  Others with Social Anxiety Disorder may see the cheerful pictures on social media and wonder why they feel so isolated.

Meanwhile, there is also a fear that if our children do not monitor these sites continuously, they will miss out on what their friends are doing, with the potential to be excluded by their peers.  This is called FOMO (“fear of missing out”), which keeps too many teens up throughout the night.  The blue portion of the light spectrum emitted by most screens stimulates the pineal gland and causes sleep deprivation.  The next day the teenager may have trouble with concentration, memory and emotional regulation.

Finally, cyberbullying continues to threaten our most vulnerable children.  While social media sites have published anti-bullying policies, 91% of those who report being the target of cyberbullying also report that nothing was done to address the problem.

A final concern related to screen time is that teens and tweens are very sophisticated in keeping their on-line activities secretive.  For example, some teens maintain two Instagram accounts.  The real Instagram account they call “rinsta” and use it for the widest audience.  However, when they want to post something to a more select group, they use their fake Instagram account, called “finsta.”  There are also “closed” Facebook groups, where new users have to be approved by an administrator.  There are new apps, such as “Vaulty”, that allow access to multiple levels of a site by using multiple passwords.  The reality is that most teens and tweens are more saavy about social media than their parents, making it harder to track their on-line activities and screen time.

young boy on computer getting screen timeSo what’s a parent to do?  First of all, parents need to recognize that any device that they provide their child to access the internet needs to be seen as a privilege, not a right.  Parents who try to enforce reasonable limits on the amount and type of access that their children enjoy are likely to be criticized by their children for being too restrictive.  This problem is exacerbated by other parents who are not as vigilant as they need to be.  If you choose to set limits on technology, there are tools to help.  “Circle with Disney” allows a parent to limit screen time and set a bedtime for every device in the home.
The larger challenge is to be able to engage your child in a discussion of how internet behavior, which can linger online for 15 years or more, needs to reflect the values of your family.  Recently, ten students who were accepted to Harvard for next year had their acceptances retracted due to racist and obscene internet posts. The anonymity of the internet makes it appear that there are no consequences for what we post on-line.  Whether it is about how we speak to each other, how we avoid sexually compromising situations, or how we respond to aggressive behavior that we witness on line, we need to create opportunities for family discussion about the new technology that has entered our homes.

Keep in mind, the kids are the “digital natives” and parents are probably “digital immigrants”; therefore, acknowledging the superior knowledge of your children when it comes to these devices and platforms may give them a feeling of respect, which in turn may create a greater willingness to have a dialog with you about screen time.

Written by Michael T. Smith, Ph.D. and Geoffrey Peal, Psy.D.


“Social Media Wellness:  Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World” by Ana Homayoun.

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines on Screen Time

Family Online Safety Institute