How bad is screen time for kids, really?

Parents stress about screen time, but does the research support that?

Child gazing at computer screen.
Should parents stress out about screen time? (Photo illustration: Victoria Ellis for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

Screen time has been a hot-button topic for parents for decades and particularly over the past few years. The rise of personal devices like tablets, phones and smart watches, along with the use of screens in schools, has made screen time common for kids. Data also shows that screen time skyrocketed during the pandemic as parents struggled to juggle working with managing their children being at home.

Screen time guidelines have changed slightly over time. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) used to recommend no screen time at all for children until 18 to 24 months, and limiting kids ages 2 to 5 to an hour or less of screen time a day.

But the AAP now no longer gives a recommended limit on screen time. "There isn’t enough evidence demonstrating a benefit from specific screen time limitation guidelines," the AAP says. "Because children and adolescents can have many different kinds of interactions with technology, rather than setting a guideline for specific time limits on digital media use, we recommend considering the quality of interactions with digital media and not just the quantity, or amount of time."

Still, doctors say that plopping kids in front of screens all day isn't great for them. So what does the research say about screen time and how can you navigate it? Here's the deal.

What does research say about screen time for kids?

Data on screen time in kids is mixed and wide-ranging but, as the AAP states, it doesn't give a definitive answer on how much is too much.

  • In September, researchers released findings from the Japan Environment and Children's Study, which analyzed data from 57,980 children. Researchers concluded that increased screen time (specifically from TV or DVDs) from age 1 "negatively affected later development" and recommended that families who rely on screen time receive social support to help them better manage their intake.

  • A study of 7,097 children published in August in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that children who had anywhere from one to four hours of screen time a day at age 1 had a higher risk of developmental delays in communication, fine motor, problem-solving and personal and social skills by age 2. "These findings suggest that domains of developmental delay should be considered separately in future discussions on screen time and child development," the researchers concluded.

  • A meta-analysis of 45 studies published in the Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition in January found that children with total daily screen time of more than four hours were more likely to be overweight or obese compared to those who had less screen time. Kids who had the most screen time were 1.2 times more likely to be obese than those who were at the opposite end of the spectrum.

  • A 2019 cohort study of 2,441 mothers and children found that higher levels of screen time in children between the ages of 24 months and 36 months were linked to poor performance on a screening test of the children’s development milestones at 36 months and 60 months. "Excessive screen time can impinge on children’s ability to develop optimally," the researchers concluded. "It is recommended that pediatricians and health care practitioners guide parents on appropriate amounts of screen exposure and discuss potential consequences of excessive screen use."

  • According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, too much screen time in preschool-age children is linked to a higher body mass index, less sleep and developmental delays.

Research has also linked kids with more screen time to worse sleep, but one study notes that "there is a clear need for more basic, translational, and clinical research examining the effects of screen media on sleep loss and health consequences in children and adolescents."

But a study of 547 twin children published in Psychological Science in 2020 found that the impact screen time has on sleep ultimately depends on the kids themselves. The study found that kids who scored lower on a measure of effortful control (the ability to override inappropriate impulses, focus their attention and complete hard tasks) had less sleep when they used screens at night compared to those who had high effortful control.

While the data seems to suggest that too much screen time is bad, doctors say it's a little complicated.

How much screen time is OK?

This is where things get tricky. "We're continually sending kids mixed messages about screen time," Dr. Naline Lai, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Yahoo Life. "A lot of our learning is very screen-based these days."

There are different types of screen time, and it's important for parents to consider that, Dr. Gina Posner, a board-certified pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "There's screen time like Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger that's more educational and then there's screen time that's mindless," she says. "They should be categorized differently because there are some things that actually teach children. I have 2- and 3-year-olds who are reading some words and it's not because of the parents — it's from the shows they've watched."

Lai says she recommends that parents be concerned about screen time when kids get emotionally attached to it. "When you say it's time to give up the screen and they start to cry or whine, then you know you need to take a break," she says.

Doctors say family rules on screen time are important.

"For school-age children, there should be house rules about when and where the child can have screen time," Dr. Jennifer Cross, a pediatrician specializing in developmental and behavioral pediatrics at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "Obviously, many children need access to a computer for schoolwork, so rules about time have to take that into account."

Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., tells Yahoo Life that it's important for parents to set their own house rules around screen time. "Parents need to identify how much screen time will be allowed, when screen time can be used and what content can be accessed," she says. "Parents need to also consider when screen time needs to end regardless of if their child has used their allotted time. This can help ensure that screen time is not impacting sleep schedule."

Cadieux stresses that "screen time is a privilege," adding that "parents can use screen time to reinforce appropriate behavior, but they can also remove screen time for inappropriate behavior."

Posner recommends using screen time as a reward. "If you read for this amount of time, you can earn some screen time," she says.

But she also admits that it can be tough to limit all screen time to a set number of hours. "Screens dominate everything," she says. "I don't know how many adults limit themselves to two hours a day. It's tough."

This article was originally published on Sept. 18, 2023 and has been updated.