How to sanely reduce children's screen time

Jun 6, 2019


The World Health Organization recently released screen use guidelines for children, which include no screen time for under age 2 and no more than an hour of screen time for ages 2 to 4. We all know screen time is very much part of our world and culture. Understanding the growing needs of children can improve how families face this issue.

I understand why parents could feel these WHO guidelines are unrealistic. Family life can be overwhelming at times, and the needs of children of all ages can seem to be never-ending. As parents we try to prioritize and do our best, and where screen time is concerned even the WHO guidelines note “less is better.”

But, as the WHO April 24, 2019, news release also explains, "early childhood is a period of rapid development and a time when family lifestyle patterns can be adapted to boost health gains.” From birth to age 3, a child thrives with a lot of warm human interaction, regular sleep, play based on imagination, language (being read and spoken to) and a lot of movement. Staring at a screen cannot replace these vital needs. Older kids also need time without screens to be physically active and engage in schoolwork with focus.

Change is hard, but there are reasonable steps you can take to reduce the impact of screen time on your children without losing your sanity as a parent. I recommend taking small steps as a family.

Small steps to make a big impact

With babies and younger children, a good first step is to increase outside playtime while reducing screen time over a couple of weeks. They, as well as the whole family, can benefit from a device-free family dinner with a focus on conversation.

School-age children are impacted by teachers’ expectations about screen use for assignments and communication. Keeping the focus on homework rather than social media or entertainment is easier if the computer is in the main living area of the home.

I recommend no recreational screen time until chores, homework and exercise commitments are met. This isn’t a reward system but a necessity for a connected and positive family life.

Even movie time can be turned into something more socially engaging as a family. Try stopping the action at a lull. Ask everyone to describe what they think will happen next or how was that special effect created. It breaks the spell a bit, and any step toward more critical thinking of digital content will lead to a more healthy life.

I recommend the documentary Screenagers to all parents. It deals with the effects of media on growing children and points out how media can be addictive even to the point of destroying a life the way drugs might.

As a parent, as a doctor

As a parent, I’ve seen the positives of reduced screen time. My wife and I decided to raise our children without television. I attribute the success of my children as adults in part to that consciousness when they were little. They know how to do things they really enjoy beyond looking for the next exciting thing to watch on a screen.

As a family practice physician, I welcome the chance to work with my patients who are interested in a thoughtful approach to these issues. All parents—from those expecting a baby to parents of teens—can work toward the goal of raising children who are digitally savvy and safe and who balance media time with healthy activity.

Alan Craig Thom, DO