Stop Guessing About Screen Time for Kids – Use This Chart

All New Net Nanny® - Tom’s Guide #1 Rated Parental Control App

Instant Search Reports, Alerts for App Usage, & Blocking of Inappropriate Content.

Buy Now

I'll be the first to admit guilt when it comes to unsupervised screen time with my child. Having loaded highly-rated educational apps on my son’s tablet, I’ve let him learn the ins and outs by himself, assuming that he was building skills by navigating on his own. But according to the research, I should be playing alongside him.

Unsupervised screen time in young children, specifically when dealing with educational apps, is not ideal, and not just because there could be content you don’t want your child accessing. Most parents vet the apps we allow our toddlers and preschoolers to play, so we know that inappropriate content is not an issue.

A study from the Society for Research in Child Development contends that the pace and the extent of learning are significantly reduced when young children play apps without someone at their side guiding them. We already know that parental guidance is crucial for early literacy emergence in our children and that our involvement is the cornerstone to developing social, emotional and cognitive skills. So why do we behave differently when it comes to technology?

To understand more about screen time and children, take a look at our Parent’s Guide to Demystifying Screen Time.

Why Screen Time for Kids Should Be Examined

Researchers Laura Zimmerman and Rachel Barr found that when toddlers were left to navigate apps on their own, context and synthesis, two foundational aspects of knowledge, were often absent. In essence, the skills young children acquire from playing an app on a screen are not always transferred to real-world scenarios.

Zimmerman and Barr worked with a puzzle app, requiring children to drag the pieces on the screen, dropping them into the correct positions; the same task was then completed with a physical, 3D puzzle. One set of children received a ghost demonstration of the task, wherein the app demonstrates by moving the pieces into the correct positions, while the other set of children had an adult demonstrate how to assemble the digital puzzle.

Those children who received a physical demonstration performed at a greater level than those who received a virtual demonstration. The results illustrate that children perform better or achieve a higher level of learning when a person physically demonstrates the task beforehand.

Screen Time for Babies

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), babies under 18 months of age should not be exposed to screened devices other than for video chatting purposes. Babies from 0-18 months are typically exposed to screen time in a passive setting. The AAP recommends that parents “prioritize creative, unplugged playtime for infants and toddlers.” This is the time when tactile games are beneficial, so blocks and shape sorters are ideal. And while many apps deal with sorting shapes and blocks, children under 18 months need to be doing this in real life, not virtually.

Screen Time for Toddlers

According to the AAP, eighteen months is the approximate age when babies can begin being exposed to a small amount of screen time, for those parents who wish to introduce screen media at this time.

Toddlers between eighteen to twenty-four months old should only be exposed to high-quality programming, with parents or guardians watching alongside them to help them understand what they’re seeing. High-quality programming is considered to be PBS children’s programming, such as Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger, which is educational and does not involve commercial interruptions.

While the AAP does not provide a recommended amount of screen time for toddlers, parents should try to limit screen time and focus on activities that involve personal interaction. Zero to Three provides the following additional screen-use tips for parents of children under the age of three

  • Limit screen time to ensure “real world” play time.
  • Help children connect what they see on a screen with real life.
  • Limit your own screen time when with your children.
  • Avoid background screen media.
  • Look for engaging apps, games, and e-books.
  • Choose interactive experiences.
  • Use screens to help develop language skills.

While supervising and interacting with your toddler during screen time is crucial for them to engage in educational screen media use, it’s equally essential for you to limit your own screen time around them. Zero to Three recommends that parents try to limit their screen time and suggests turning off notifications on their phones when their child is around. Most importantly, experts recommend that all screen time for toddlers is educational and meant expand their knowledge and awareness of the world around them.

Screen Time for Young Kids

For young children, between the ages of two and five, screen time should remain supervised with a parent or guardian interacting and engaging their child in what they’re seeing and doing on the screen. Again, screen time for young children should be high-quality, educational in nature, encouraging your child to interact and even lead the experience. With the 2-5 age group, the AAP recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day. It should be noted that video calls do not factor into the daily screen time limit, as it is social interaction.

If you’re scratching your head at the hour per day recommendation by the AAP, you’re not alone. However, KidsHealth.org reminds parents that, “Preschoolers learn by interacting with the world around them. They need to be physically active — to run, climb, and swing on the playground — and to have creative outlets like drawing or dress-up.” KidsHealth affirms that screen time has a place and purpose at this stage in your child’s development, saying that “Time spent with screens (like a TV, tablet, or smartphone) can be an opportunity to reinforce learning and promote creative play. But too much screen time can have unhealthy side effects.”

Young children can understand and play games on screened devices, making it even more critical for parents to be supervising their child’s screen time. Television will likely play a more significant role for children at the younger end of the 2-5 age range, while tablets and apps will be popular for the older end. KidsHealth provides the following tips for making screen time more productive for young children:

  • Be with young kids during screen time and interact with them.
  • Research games and apps before getting them for your child.
  • Schedule plenty of non-screen time into your child's day.
  • Keep devices with screens out of your child's bedroom after bedtime.

Again, for preschool-aged children, you want to ensure that your child is consuming only media that is high-quality and educational. Whether you play educational games alongside your child or talk about what they’ve seen afterward, make sure you engage with your little one to ensure that their screen time is productive.

Screen Time for Older Kids

By the time your child is school-aged, or six years of age and older, you should be skilled in the art of monitoring and regulating daily screen time. It becomes a little more challenging to monitor screen time with school-aged children, as most schools integrate a fair amount of screen time with their curriculum, in the form of math and reading programs for younger kids, and more advanced research and computing skills with older children.

Bearing in mind the amount of screen time kids are exposed to while at school, the AAP does not provide a time recommendation for older kids. However, the AAP emphasizes that parents should monitor screen time for the types of media consumed, and screen time should not interrupt a child’s ability to get an adequate amount of sleep; screen time should also not take the place of physical activity.

While elementary-aged children will likely be playing games and watching shows on screen devices, parents need to know that tweens and teens socialize primarily through messaging and social media platforms. Parents of older kids with smartphones of their own must be even more vigilant in monitoring their screened device use and checking in with them about their interactions online; know where your kid is spending time online and with whom they’re interacting.

If you notice that your child is trying to be secretive about their behavior, covering their screens or leaving the room to use their device, take this as a sign to check in with them. On the flip side, if your child spends a lot of time online and suddenly stops, this can be a sign of depression, cyberbullying, or an uncomfortable online encounter and should be addressed immediately. However, don’t wait for your child to exhibit troubling signs where screened devices are concerned, regularly communicate with your child about their online life.

Discover the 5 Best Educational Apps for Kids.

Screen Time Recommendations by Age Chart

At Zift, we know it can be challenging to be on top of the latest advice in digital parenting, which is why we pull the research together for you. We’ve created this quick reference chart for parents to quickly grab pertinent information about screen time usage and recommendations by age.


YEARS OF AGE
HOW SCREENS ARE USED
DEVICESBENEFITS OF SCREEN TIME
WHAT PARENTS SHOULD KNOW
RECOMMENDED SCREEN TIME AMOUNT
Babies

0 to 18 months
Video chatting
Parent's Devices
Unplugged activities & tactile games are recommended instead of screen timeNo screen time recommended; limited video chatting only


Toddlers

18 months to
2 years
Educational videos & activities
TabletCan reinforce learningFocus on high quality programming & personal interactionLimited amount of screen time exposure

Young Kids

3 to 5 years
TV, educational videos, educational appsTabletCan reinforce learning & promote creative playSupervised screen time & Co-Viewing recommendedNo more than 1 hour per day


Older Kids

6 years and older
Older Kids: TV, videos & gaming

Preteens & Teens: apps, texting, video chatting
Tablet, Desktop/Laptop, SmartphoneCan teach computing skills & reinforce learningDependent on age & maturity level
Focus on school work & education
Look out for cyberbullying & online strangers
Limit recreational screen time & prioritize physical activity & full night’s sleep

What This Means for Parents

If you take anything from this, it’s that screen time should not be a solitary activity for your child, no matter their age. Routinely engage in screen time activities with your toddler through preschooler, and regularly check-in with older children. The research presents a compelling argument for accompanying your child’s in-app play, but it’s also a concrete example of how socialization and one-on-one instruction are crucial to cognitive development. These findings should push you to find out more about how technology is being used in your child’s classroom.

For those classrooms featuring computer workstations, ask if a teacher or an aide are first demonstrating apps. Researchers Zimmerman and Barr point out that so many parents see their toddlers picking up a tablet and intuitively knowing what to do with the technology. But what parents often overlook is the hundreds, even thousands, of hours they’ve spent honing their skills with computers. Remember, our kiddos still need guidance in using tools such as tablets, despite having been surrounded by technology since birth.

To create balance in your child’s life, create media-free times such as mealtimes and while driving in the car, in addition to media-free zones, such as the bedroom, to enforce breaks in your child’s screen use. Most importantly, discuss digital citizenship with your child and consider creating a family media contract to communicate expectations and try using a parental control app to easily monitor and enforce your child’s screen time use.

Learn more about kids and screen time by reading Toddlers' Screen Time Linked to Slower Speech Delays.

About Lauren B. Stevens

Lauren B. Stevens is a writer, editor & digital parent, whose pieces have been published across the internet and featured in several print anthologies. Lauren lives in the Baltimore area with her husband and son, and enjoys spending her family time hiking and traveling.

    Comments: 0

All New Net Nanny® - Tom’s Guide #1 Rated Parental Control App

Instant Search Reports, Alerts for App Usage, & Blocking of Inappropriate Content.

Buy Now

Recommended for You