Screen Time

UPDATE: iOS12 introduced a new Screen Time application. The resource is now available on all iOS devices (iPads). Additional Information

“Screen time” is an often misunderstood and misused phrase. It is important to understand to what we refer when we say “screen time,” if we use the phrase at all, and empower ourselves with current facts.

In October of 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its guidelines to drop a hard-and-fast rule about length of time children of any age should be using a digital device. Previous guidelines did not control for important variables, and were therefore overly restrictive. The current state of the literature helps us better understand what does or may cause harm, and what does not.

The phrase “screen time,” as used by academics, refers to using digital media for “entertainment purposes.” Using a digital device for learning is not considered “screen time.”

The teacher-guided, in-class utilization of digital educational technology within the context of a learning task is not “screen time” as the term is often misused. Using an iPad to practice fact fluency skills as a learning extension at home is also not “screen time.” The most common myth about “screen time” is that prolonged use of digital screens regardless of content is, itself, detrimental to all children in all cases. This is not borne out by the body of research literature on the subject. There was a time when people were deeply concerned about low-level electromagnetic frequency (EMF) radiation from consumer electronics, for example; there is no evidence to support that this is so.

There are, however, important issues surrounding children’s use of technology that all adults should understand.


One of the most critical of these issues is sleep. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), the total amount of sleep (including naps) children should have in a given 24 hour period is as follows:

  • Ages 4-12 months: 12-16 hours (including naps)
  • Ages 1-2 years: 11-14 hours (including naps)
  • Ages 3-5 years: 10-13 hours (including naps)
  • Age 6-12 years: 9-12 hours
  • Age 13-18 years: 8-10 hours

These figures were endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) in the Summer of 2016. According to the AASM:“Regularly sleeping fewer than the number of recommended hours is associated with attention, behavior, and learning problems,” according to the statement. “Insufficient sleep also increases the risk of accidents, injuries, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and depression.” Likewise, too much sleep has been linked to obesity, diabetes and mental health problems, the group said.

Electronic devices with light-up screens can disrupt and inhibit sleep according to a 2014 review of the research literature, which found that in 90% of adolescent-age sleep studies, the use of devices prior to bedtime directly correlated to disruptions in healthful sleep patterns. This is due both to cognitive stimulation as well as illumination, which increases alertness. Additionally, the more interactive the device, the more disruptive to sleep the effect, delaying and therefore reducing overall sleep, found prevalent in 72% of adolescents according to the National Institutes of Health in 2011.

Bottom Line: Using digital devices before bed, recreationally or otherwise, disrupts healthy sleep, which is critical for healthy development.

Solution: Children should not use digital devices beginning an hour prior to sleep time, and should not have digital devices in bedrooms. Parents can model this behavior by removing screens and devices from their rooms.


The National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has found increases in childhood obesity and sedentary activities and decreases in vigorous physical activities, related to the increased use of digital media such as that found on television and through personal electronic devices. The National Youth Fitness Survey, part of the NHANES, has also found decreases in vigorous physical activities.

Based on the body of literature regarding health for children as of 2016, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 60 minutes daily of “moderate to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity” for children and teenagers.

Bottom Line: Outside of the school day, developing healthy play and exercise habits that involve vigorous aerobics is important for healthy development.

Solution: Any family media plan should include 60 minutes a day of non-device play and/or exercise time. Include this when creating your Family Media Plan, specifically on the Media Time Calculator.

Communication versus Recreation

Research shows us that the best form of media for children is photographic instead of representative. In short, pictures and videos of real people and things is better for healthful brain development than cartoons or drawings, as children are able to analogize what they see in the physical world with the things they see on a screen. Many families use real-time video conferencing technologies, like Facetime or Skype or Google Hangouts, to connect babies to grandparents, for example. There is no compelling evidence that there is anything detrimental about this practice.

The more face-to-face and eye-to-eye contact children have, the better for their development. While there is of course no substitute for the loving, nurturing, safe, appropriate touch of the adults who care for children, providing an opportunity to interact with other loving, real faces and voices is entirely appropriate for even young children.

Self-stimulating and exploration activities like playing in a mirror are common observations among developing babies and toddlers, so placing a digital device’s camera on “selfie” mode and letting a young child mirror expressions and see themselves can be another appropriate use of this technology.

While these activities may indeed all be “fun,” developing communications skills and positive, prosocial interpersonal relationships is a different domain of brain development than simple entertainment.

Banning digital technology outright for children under the age of 2 could potentially deny children the opportunity to further engage with meaningful faces and voices in their lives.

Bottom Line: Communicating with other people in appropriate ways, especially to foment and strengthen loving, appropriate relationships between friends and family, is a valid use of digital technology with potential benefits.

Solution: Don’t count video chats with Grandma against recreational screen time when keeping track of media use.

For More Information

For additional resources about “screen time,” visit

Gradisar M; Wolfson AR; Harvey AG; Hale L; Rosenberg R; Czeisler CA. The sleep and technology use of Americans: findings from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America Poll. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 2013;9(12):1291-1299.

Kan, P., Simonson, S. E., Lyon, J. L., & Kestle, J. R. (2008). Cellular phone use and brain tumor: a meta-analysis. [Abstract]. Journal of Neuro-Oncology, 86(1), 71-78.

Paruthi S, Brooks LJ, D’Ambrosio C, Hall WA, Kotagal S, Lloyd RM, Malow BA, Maski K, Nichols C, Quan SF, Rosen CL, Troester MM, Wise MS. Recommended amount of sleep for pediatric populations: a consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 2016;12(6):785–786.