Is screen time really going to damage my kid?

Dr. Mona Amin is an In The Know parenting contributor. Follow her on Instagram for more.

Most parents of our generation have common questions when it comes to kids and technology — and I’m ready to answer them once and for all.

Am I allowing my child too much screen time? Maybe.

Will it harm them in the long run? Probably not.

Am I a bad parent for needing a break and putting my child in front of a screen? Definitely not. 

Screen time rules have been blown out of the water in the pandemic, and so many parents have asked me, “Is it OK to break the rules?”

My answer? It is OK.

Screen-time recommendations

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommendations based on various screen-time research. Here’s what the organization recommends for kids in various age groups:

Children 18 months or younger: No screens are best, with the exception of video chat with family and friends. 

18 months to 2 years: Limit screen time and avoid solo use. Choose high-quality programming that is educational, and watch with your child to ensure understanding.

2-5 years: Limit screen time to an hour a day, and co-watch if possible.

6 years and older: Place consistent limits on screen time as decided by the family, but assure it doesn’t impact their sleep, exercise or behavior.

The concerns with screens at a young age has a lot to do with its impact on memory, language and literacy skills. Various studies show children who exceeded screen-time recommendations set forth by the AAP performed worse on cognitive tests.

But the big question that remains is what was the quality of social and educational interaction outside of that screen time? Could that potentially be protective?

Take, for example, a 2-year-old who has two hours of screen time — the parents are highly involved during the other hours that the child is awake, and the child attends various activities that are developmentally appropriate and engaging. Could this be protective? Likely so.

My thought on screens is that we should limit them as much as possible, but they are not all bad. Rules can be broken outside of the guidelines if the family engages in meaningful activities when screens are not in use and parents set screen-time boundaries for themselves and their children.

Take, for example, a couple that is working from home during the pandemic. They are overworked, losing their patience and sit their child in front of a screen for a half-hour over the recommended time. The mother gets time to finish her work, cook, rest, clean and reset. She is more centered and ready to get back to parenting after this much-needed break. She is now able to engage with her child, free from the stress of everything else she has to do.

On the other hand, take a mother who refuses to use screen time. She is exhausted, tired, losing her patience and can’t find the energy to sit and play with her child, so she simply stares into space.

On one hand, you have a mother who is very engaged after the use of screens. On the other, you have a mother who is burned-out and disengaged. I’m more concerned about the disengaged mother. 

So much of child development has to do with the quality of interaction with our children and not the quantity. And sometimes, screens can help us get the rest we need to then be able to provide those quality moments. And I don’t think that’s wrong. I don’t think it’s detrimental.

Setting boundaries

The goal is to create common-sense rules:

  1. Try to limit the use of screens whenever you can. Always try independent play or screen-free play first. 
  2. If your child is under 18 months, try to limit the screens with the understanding that occasional use will not harm your child in the long run.
  3. Limit the use of screens before bedtime, as this can affect sleep.
  4. Limit the use of screens during family time or at the dinner table. These times should be screen-free zones unless you make an occasional exception.
  5. Give yourself some grace in understanding that sometimes you will use screens. Sometimes, it will give you the break you need. Sometimes, it will give you the space you need to rest your mind so you can come back and be the engaged parent you already are.

Don’t fear the screens.

Simply make common-sense rules that work for your family while balancing not only your child’s development and needs but your needs as well.

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