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9 secrets to managing your child's screen time

When you limit screen time, you give your child the gift of more time to read, engage in active play, and be a healthier child.

By GreatSchools Staff

Is your child spending more time staring at a screen than playing? Kids 8 and under spend around two hours a day with some sort of screen (TV, tablet,  smart phone, or video game), according to Common Sense Media's 2013 study, Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America. And the older the child, the more they're lured in by the glowing screen: children ages 8 to 18 spend, on average, close to 45 hours per week watching TV, playing video games, instant messaging, and listening to music online — far more time than they spend with their parents or in the classroom, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. While media exposure can be beneficial, research abounds on how much and what subject matter is appropriate for children.

More studies sound the alarms

Childhood obesity is on the rise. The New England Journal of Medicine notes in a 2008 study that one in four preschoolers is obese and a 2014 study found a disturbing trend of "weight fate" in which a third of children who were overweight in kindergarten were obese by 8th grade. Experts say it's because kids aren't getting enough exercise and eating a healthy diet. Too much screen time — whether it be in front of a TV, computer, or video game — is part of the problem.

Another study by the Center on Media and Child Health found that children who watched violent content spent less time with friends than children who watched nonviolent content, resulting in more isolation. Other research has linked television watching to an increased rate of aggressive physical and verbal behavior in children.

Children who spend too much time in front of the TV or computer have "little time for exercising their predispositions for fantasy, imagination, and creativity," writes child development professor and best-selling author David Elkind in his book The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier and Healthier Children. Other critics note that it is very difficult to prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between media exposure and emotional and behavioral problems. But savvy parents should certainly be on the lookout for signs of behavioral changes in their children and adjust media exposure accordingly.

What's a parent to do?

With the array of media available for our kids today — and their amazing ability to watch TV, instant message, and listen to music all at the same time — what's the best way to balance media exposure with other activities? How can you monitor what and how much your child consumes? Two organizations offer tools and reviews to help parents navigate the fast-moving media world.

Common Sense Media is devoted to providing "trustworthy information and tools, as well as an independent forum, so that families can have a choice and a voice about the media they consume."

"Media is a force for negative as well as positive," says Peter Katz, director of marketing for the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. "You wouldn't let your child eat junk food 24 hours a day. Just as children need a moderate diet of food, so do they need a moderate media diet. Parents need to make informed decisions."

The Parents' Choice Foundation, the nation's oldest nonprofit guide to children's media, is another source of information for parents seeking guidance.

"Kids are tired of being told what they can't do and what they can't see. They want to know what they can do and see," says Claire Green, Parents' Choice president. Parents' Choice conducts an annual awards program and reviews books, toys, music, television, software, video games, Web sites and magazines. "Parents have tough jobs," Green says. "They must be cheerleaders and goalkeepers, fence builders, and fence menders. Parents must do their best to keep their children safe, keep them well, open their minds — and remember to shut the back door."

Comments from readers

"i still think kids should NOT have a TV in their room "
"great advice!"
"When I became a Mom... I decided on never letting the TV raise my kids...My kids were never left in front of the TV, while I did chores even when they were very little. My cousins and friends, with kids the same age, thought I was being paranoid. But now when I turn off the TV, I just get mild groans from my kids, a daughter (8) and a son (6). They are both good at finding activities to do together because on, no TV days, they spend hours building forts in their room, they read to each other, they play board games and fight too, blow bubbles off the balcony, they are good at pretend play. They love to be outside and instantly get ready to play in the yard, pool or parks, no trouble getting them to turn off TV. They don't have a cable connection in their room."
"i am sorry but do the parents have time for their children? no. they don't. so what can a child do to keep him or her busy. i will go back to basics.The family: one man (dad) + one woman (mom) living together with children. when 30-40% parents don't fulfill this definition of a family; such article is waste of time."
"I have a hard time believing that kids are watching TV/Computer Video games 6 1/2 hours a day as this article claims. I thought my child, who often will get 1 1/2 hours of media a day between computer and TV, got a lot. I just don't see where even the laziest of parents could find the time to provide 6 1/2 hours of media to their kids. There aren't enough hours in the day for this. This makes me think that this article is not very well researched, and a little bit of a scare tactic. Where does this extraordinary figure come from? I stopped reading after the first sentence to type this comment."
"We as a family control media all the time and agree that too much media like anything is not healthy. I also think that children do not read as often when theres too much media."
"Thank you for the artickle, also it's a great idea to have some usefull comments. Thank you folks for the Ez Internet Timer, I downloaded the program from thir website Awesome software from the first glance. If my 14 year old guru didn't break it during it 2 weeks of trial, I will buy it. Thank you again."
"Nice article. Some time ago I had only one problem with my child. He spent too much time on the Internet. To my opinion, the internet is an excellent resource for children. It provides help with their homework, communication with teachers and their friends. That is why I did not want to restrict interneт access at all. I found one that suits my needs perfectly called Ez Internet Timer. Today I can easily schedule when to stop all children’s on-line activity. After reading the article I decided to spend some time on the Internet with the son. Thanks!"
"the tips are ok but you might want to watch the movie or show before exposing it to the child to see if it's appropiate for the child to watch."
"The person who wrote the comment advising to 'BACK OFF' is an illiterate....literally. Or just some youngster without a basic knowlegde of english grammar as it were. A very classic example of one who didn't limit his 'screen time' How sad! To live in America and still be that stupid while educational opportunies abound everywhere! To a large extent, almost every single commenter who disliked or disagreed with this great article could not even write their articles correctly using proper grammar and spelling! How really sad! Logan kept writing 'you're' instead of 'your', another wrote 'write' instead of 'right'.That's just to point out a few of the numerous grammatical errors, not to mention their sorry mentalities! A bunch of idiots! No wander immigrants/foreigners come and grab all the educational resources/opportunities we have left wasted and unused!"
"The person who wrote the comment advising to 'BACK OFF' is an illiterate...literally. Or maybe just some 10yr old kid with very bad writing skills, no knowledge of english grammar as it were. A very classic example of one who hasn't controlled his 'screen time'. How sad! To live in America and still be that stupid, while educational opportunities abound everywhere. "
"Excellent article. Every school should give a copy of this to the students' parents. In response to the BACK OFF comment. That parent doesn't realize what and important role a PARENT has to play. Having a child is a great responsibility. A parent is responsible not only for a child's physical well-being, but for the child's emotional, social, spiritual and intellectual well-being. A parent's role is not to be their FRIEND and to be LIKED. (If it happens, fine!)It is to prepare their child for life, to TEACH them right from wrong, to give advice and guidance. A parent's job isn't to let them grow up like little 'weeds' in the garden of life. One day, their child will appreciate it, when they grow up to be productive, kind-hearted, socially responsible human beings."
"I recently went to the Digital Life show to do research for my company. While there I noticed a product that was intriguing. So I bought it after spending about 20 minutes talking to the owner. It's called BOB, or Bob, and it controls the power to anything. So now I have my 10 year old and my 13 year old on timed access to the TV, if I had another $200 I would buy one for each damn monitor in their rooms. My 13 year old daughter has a slow internet connection, and my 10 yr old son, has no internet. Anyway, I told the owner I would try it, and that if I thought it helped I would help spread the word. It helps me stop being the bad guy all the time. Which is often enough as it is as a mom whose husband works long hours . . ."
"Don't you think it is ironic that those replies which complain that 'we' (parents or adults)either don't 'get it' or exaggerate the anti-screen time's detrimental effects on children and teens can't spell or write correctly?!! Amazing. "
"hey thanks for sending me an email and introduction to your site. I love the idea now if I could just talk my 8 yr old off of my space it be great. With older siblings its difficult. thanks again Cindy"
"Ok you know what...this article is so stupid it's actually funny. If parents do this to their kids than kids will hate them forever. Parents, if you really want to help your kids than stay away from articles like this. And there are tons of them, maybe some parents like this crap but i think its worng. That person is write when they said kids should make their own decisions or the one who said this stuff is trash. Please you can rely on articles like this, try letting your kids have some fun and let them do it without your help. They will like you a whole lots more if you BACK OFF!"
"I wish all of our parents would read this and unplug the drug! Our son was totally addicted to the screen, which we can't help much now that he is a teenager. Very early on we had to have a 'no screen time on a school night' rule, because no matter what it was or what limit we had agreed to, he just could not turn it off when his time was up. Of course, to be fair, parents have to give up their evening TV as well, but now we wonder how folks manage to get anything accomplished! We watch select programs, and otherwise the TV is behind closed doors. Wake up parents -- did you watch the movie (of course, rather than read the book) Farenheit 451!!! That's where we're headed!"
"There are many comments about this article that bring up many points of parental concern. First and foremost, our youngsters and teenagers are living in a technology age that we built for them. They are a top consumers of the internet, instant messages, internet gaming, VOIP and 'myspace' and 'Utube'. How, indeed, do we as loving, role-modeling parents deal with this? This is not a world any of us lived in as kids. We have a culture of kids that can IM, and have intimate relationships with many school friends and never leave their rooms or homes. My son asked me to move his PC from his room to the living room. Then he can use the 52' HD plasma TV as a gaming monitor. I honesty feel like we 'don't know what to do'. I analyse the games my son is playing and indeed, reluctlanty, I agree with Users comments in many regards. Still? I see my son and his friends striving for gaming time, with little regard for their high school class assignments or their grades in ! general. Locally, we have large gaming locations where young kids (mostly boys) paid a flat rate to 'game' all day. There are no parenting manuals for this. We are concerned parents, looking for direction. "
"I apologize for being rude, but I do wish you would stop glorifying these mostly unfounded articles. Many people who criticize Video Games, and other such media today, are all under a common misconception: They are living in the 'Arcade Age' Welcome to the 21st century, games, for the most part are no longer the mindless 8-bit games like PAC MAN and Pong, they are in many cases (particularly in the RPG genre) exhibit much deeper thought processes and moral values than a lot of Modern Literature. They do not erode you're children's creative thinking, if anything they encourage and reinforce it. I think that much of this seemingly unfounded hostility towards videogames is fear. The older generation (which majority of these critics seem to be) is afraid of this emerging technology because it is an unknown area to them. They are afraid to watch their children type at 50 words per minute while they still hunt and peck. They are afraid of losing control over these things because they are unfamiliar. While this fear of losing control is legitimate, as children of certain ages and maturity levels should not be subjected to specific content, I believe that this issue is being handled the wrong way: I don't believe you're children should be deprived of one of the most popular and enjoyable experiences in this emerging technological era simply because parent's are afraid of losing control over it. I believe that the answer is not in limiting a child's time to be immersed in Media like videogames, but to actually learn about it for yourselves. Learn about web-nannies that can keep you're children out of questionable sites, learn about Videogames, and if you're Child asks about one you're not sure of, why not rent it first for yourself? You'd do the same with a movie, why not a game? In conclusion, I would like to say, that in my opinion the answer lies in mastering the technology yourself as a parent, and using you're own judgment on what you're child should and shouldn't do. Instead of limiting other people's enjoyment, why not indulge yourself, and in the process, improve both you, and you're child's experience. Thank you for you're consideration. ~Logan"
"The guy who wrote the feedback saying you should call video games just 'games' is an idiot! You were just talking about video games which I agree when you say kids should have x amount of time to play them and they should be observed. I don't let my daughter watch a lot of tv or play a lot of video games because i don't want her sitting around getting fat. I get her outside for fresh air and excersize. I have her in sports like soccer. Like you said, some media exposure is good for children but should not be overdone, and that also goes for video games."
"I'm 15 and I have spent almost my entire life watching tv, playing on the computer and listening to music. Since I can't drive yet whenever my friends and I want something we just walk there even if its 4 miles away and right next to a highway. I'm actually 10-15 pounds under the recommended wieght for my hieght, even though I spend most of my time in front of screens. I love playing violent video games and some of them make me crack up laughing like when I blow up a building for no reason but for fun. This being said, I have never once gotten a bad citizenship grade on my report card, gotten suspended/expelled, or anything like that, (not counting the period of time before my parents and doctor knew I had A.D.D., meaning I couldn't control myself.) But that was in first grade and ever since I may have gotten a few detentions and demerits for childish stuff but never anything like getting in a fight or something. I also have never gotten in trouble with the police or anythin! g. I also make good grades. I have excellent eye-hand-cordnation, and have great reflexes. I play tennis at my school and even over the summer I have played in tournaments and take private lessons twice a week. To sum it up I love seeing a pixilated car blow up and fly across the sky only to plummet through a building causing it to blow up, but I would never do something like that in real life because I have common sense."
"What's wrong with video games?Absolutely nothing,I tell you.Sure,it's unhealthy if you're on most of the time,but you just can't limit them to TWO HOURS.And also,I think it's perfectly fine for kids under 18 to be in chat rooms,as long as they keep their information private.What are you trying to prove?"
"to everyone saying that spending countless hours infront of a screen is unhealthy and leads to obesity, i have one word to say 'Wii'. this game system although still hard to get, but if you do it comes with a sports game for free. i played the WiiSports for hours and i was so tired out i had to just lie down. and it's for all ages, it's a great game that's extremely addictive, and above all its good excercise. plus, there are many other fun Wii games that make you move around like the new Mario Party 8. from experience i know the game board part of the game is kinda boring but then when the mini-games come up they are so fun and on the Wii they will get you moving. and if you can't get one of these, try buying healthier foods. I know that most teenagers will eat whatever they can get when they're hungry. so if carrots, and cellary are the only things in the fridge, that's what they'll eat."
"listen to the song 'Teach your children well', by Crosby Stills and Nash, the biology argument is baloney, they do live by their father's (excuse me) -ell! The twins experiment was skewed, buy satellite tv, block the mouthy kids tv shows, and let them be innocent kids, they don't need the sex exposure, the mouthy talking back, or the rap music, this is where we did wrong! Let the kids be kids for as long as they can be, but be there when they want to talk, and try to get the grandparents more involved, this is why the kids are so messed up these days, make the grandparents do their part too, they are off making money, the selfish generation!!! Plz think about it!!"
"Video games are very unproductive. You don't need them to survive. The majority of people with kids let them sit down all day, eating potatoe chips and soda. Most parents aren't even at home with their kids during the week! Unsupervised kids tend to start living like they are in the video game. They start getting obese then eventually it leads to drug abuse then they land themselves in jail. "
"i think that kids in elementry and middle school should be spending more time with family but when you reach high school should get more freedom. but when you are in high school that freedom could be taken away if used for granited. like playing video games, watching tv, going on computer and texting is fine, but when you kids start drinking, smoking or doing drugs then you should think about interferring. also if your child has a cell phone put gps in there phones without them knowing so you can call and it will tell you where they are and you can see if they are lieing or not. but make sure your children are active because every kids needs that. teens get peer presseured into many things make sure you talk to your kids about drinking, smoking, drugs and sex, so if it comes to it they know what to do. but for one thing trust your child they appreciate it."
"I think it's the time where parents need to be more cautious with TV and computers and things, because we're a media-based society now more than ever. When I was younger, TV and computers weren't as developed as they are now, so getting into sports, arts, music, etc. was more interesting than sitting around watching TV. I don't think studies need to be made on issues like TV. Any idiot knows that you can't spend too much time in front of the TV or else you'll gain weight. Duh. And it's not all media that is making teenagers into little tramps, it's their parents not caring. I'm still a teenager. I spend WAY more time than I should in front of the computer. I do very well in school, I have friends, I have a caring family, including parents. Yeah, I could use a little more exercise. I am aware of that. I'll be the first to admit it. I think kids need to be aware of all the benefits exercise gives you that media does not. "
"Seems to me like the key is moderation in all things. That varies by person and situation. I would agree that in general too much time is spent on video games and tv instead of social interaction outside of MMORPGs."
"Wow - I can't believe that there are people objecting to kids getting off their bottoms and actively using their brains to develop skills that don't involve games or passive watching. Parents, there is plenty of software out there that manages kids use of the computer. I have one program called Time Control that limits hours on the internet and on the computer. Otherwise my kids would never get offline. Put the TV on a timer if you must, don't buy the game consoles - we didn't, and give them access to books and art supplies, pens and paper and whatever. Kids need to learn to think, too."
"The was great, I have never read something so intertaing. And I am only twelve. I believe that all that is true. My niece and our friends said that I should watch Degrassy the TV show. But when I turned it on there were people talking about sex, doing drugs and drinking beer and alcohol. Then my dad came in when I was just going to turn it off.... boy did he get md at me."
"As a therapist, I can assure you that developing an imagination is essential to developing the capacity for empathy. Since video games and TV require little imagination to use and 'play with,' those skills suffer. The capacity for empathy is what enables us to treat each other with kindness and understanding. "