A Pediatrician’s Advice on How to Limit Screen Time for Kids

How to set a solid, safe foundation at an early age when it comes to electronic devices.

Illustration by Zhen Liu

Tablets and other electronic devices (EDs) have become a part of everyday life, even for our kids. But there are dangers, so how can you create a balance?

Pediatrician Christopher Cunha of Pediatric Associates, PSC, in Northern Kentucky notices that children rarely read the books in his waiting room anymore. Instead, they are occupied with EDs. He sees young patients with poor speech and interaction skills. His daughter Katie Felts, a speech language pathologist with Boone County Schools, sees kindergartners who don’t know how to hold a pencil or cut with scissors.

“There is so much external focusing on screens, it overrides everything else,” Cunha says. So much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that pediatricians “educate parents on the importance of hands-on, unstructured, and social play . . . .”

Yes, EDs are a quick and easy solution. You need to occupy a rambunctious or fussy toddler, and EDs work. But research has shown that children who use electronics may actually have a harder time managing their emotions. If you hand them an electronic device every time, they will learn it’s their coping mechanism. Toddlers need practice soothing and entertaining themselves. EDs can also be linked to obesity, low-quality sleep, attention and social problems, and addiction.

The AAP recommends zero EDs before 18 months and only one hour per day up to age 5. Media should be interactive with a caregiver. Research shows poor language development with solo viewing but enhanced language with co-viewing, if the caregiver reinforces new vocabulary.

Balance screen time with other activities

  • Children will copy you, so re-evaluate your own relationship with EDs.
  • Reduce battles by setting rules, such as no electronics in the car or at mealtimes.
  • Use a timer app, says Cunha, to help kids learn to self-limit. Twenty-minute blocks are plenty, and then encourage creative thinking.
  • Use tablets and phones as a shared experience.
  • Leave the house prepared, with activities and books.
  • In the car, talk or listen to children’s music or audiobooks, Felts says.
  • Read physical books; studies show e-books reduce comprehension and recall.
  • Co-view TV and videos, pausing to reinforce vocabulary, content, and positive messages.

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