Screen Time Recommendations by Age

Smartphones and tablets have become a part of everyday life. People use handheld devices for everything from checking email to reading the news and playing video games. While children, adolescents and adults can benefit from engaging in online activities, especially those that have an educational component, too much screen time can be harmful.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that too much screen time can lead to obesity, as individuals are more likely to be sedentary when using devices. Excessive screen time has also been linked to sleep problems, as the blue light that handheld devices emit can suppress melatonin, which, in turn, can prevent people from sleeping soundly.

While it’s sometimes difficult for children and adults to limit their screen time, the following screen time recommendations can help individuals as they try to manage their use of digital devices:

Screen Time Statistics

Due to the accessibility and widespread use of digital devices, people may not understand the negative effects of too much screen time. Before delving into specific screen time recommendations by age, it’s important to understand the impact of too much screen time.

Screen Time for Children

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) estimates that as of February 2020, children and adolescents ages 8 to 12 spent between four and six hours a day watching screens, whereas teens spent up to nine hours a day engaged in online activities. While screen time can be used to entertain and teach children, too much of it can lead to problems.

Poor Quality Screen Time Is Linked to Health Afflictions

Screen time can benefit children when they use digital devices to learn about new concepts. However, too much may lead to poor social skills and health problems, such as obesity, irregular sleep patterns and behavioral problems, according to the Mayo Clinic.

More Than Half of Teens Said They Spend Too Much Time on Their Cellphones

According to a 2018 survey from the Pew Research Center, over 70% of teen respondents said they check for messages or notifications “as soon as they wake up.” The survey also found that “roughly nine in 10 teens view spending too much time online as a problem facing people their age, including 60% who say it is a major problem.”

Too Much Screen Time Can Hurt a Child’s Developmental Abilities

Based on findings from a report in JAMA Pediatrics, too much screen time can lead to poor progress in a child’s “communication skills, problem solving and social interactions among young kids over time.”

Screen Time for Adults

A study by eMarketer found that the average U.S. adult spends roughly 3 hours 43 minutes using their mobile devices each day. Over the course of a year, this amounts to approximately 50 days per year looking at a smartphone screen. However, this statistic doesn’t account for other types of screen time, such as TV, tablet or computer usage.

Almost Half an Adult’s Day Is Spent Consuming Media Content

Nielsen reports that in 2018, adults spent approximately 11 hours per day consuming media, including live TV, smartphone apps and radio.

There’s an Association Between Screen Time and Depression for Adults

TV watching and computer use outside work or school were “associated with moderate or severe depression among U.S. adults,” according to the findings in a cross-sectional study published in Preventive Medicine Reports. “The finding of this screen time study suggests that screen time is a significant risk factor or a marker of mental disorders among U.S. adults.”

Too Much Screen Time Can Lead to Increased Mental Health and Life Risks

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, these risks can include social isolation, cyberbullying and decreased life satisfaction.

Screen Time Recommendations for Youth

While children and adolescents may be aware of the risks of too much screen time, they may not know how to limit and manage their use of digital devices. The following recommendations may be helpful for children and adolescents trying to manage screen-time use.

Place Limits on Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that for children 6 and older, screen time should not “take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.” In addition to placing limits on screen time, children and adolescents also need to be physically active. The American Cancer Society (ACS) suggests that children and adolescents engage in a minimum of one hour of “moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity each day, with vigorous activity on at least three days each week.”

Encourage Children to Express Emotions and Feelings Through Other Activities

Social media has made it easy for children and adolescents to share their thoughts and feelings to a wide digital audience. However, the AAP recommends that regarding screen time, they develop additional ways of expressing or addressing their emotions beyond digital media use. Children and adolescents need to know “how to identify and handle strong emotions, come up with activities to manage boredom, or calm down through breathing, talking about ways to solve the problem and finding other strategies for channeling emotions,” according to the AAP.

Screen Time Recommendations by Age

The AAP discourages screen use for children younger than 18 to 24 months, and recommends a limit of an hour a day for children between the ages of 2 and 5, and two hours of non-schoolwork use for school-age children between 6 and 17.

However, it can be difficult for parents to gauge how to manage screen time. Whereas some have strict “no screen time” rules for younger kids, others are less strict about letting children watch videos on smartphones.

Realize That Each Child’s Screen Time Needs Can Be Different

Even though too much screen time has been linked to negative health effects, screen time itself isn’t necessarily harmful. Additionally, while there are general guidelines for limiting or managing children’s screen time, the needs for a given child can be different.

“It is important to encourage parents to do what is right by their family. … We suggest that age-appropriate boundaries are established, negotiated by parent and child that everyone in the family understands,” recommends Dr. Max Davie, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health.

Serve as a Positive Screen Time Role Model

Parents can set a strong example for their children by limiting their own screen time when away from work. This can include setting specified periods at home when no members of the family are allowed to be on digital devices, or encouraging members to participate in group activities that don’t involve screen time.

In an article for JAMA Pediatrics, Dr. Jenny Radesky and Dr. Megan A. Moreno state: “Remember that children watch and copy their parents, so they are learning how to use smartphones even when parents do not realize it. Avoid behaviors you don’t want your kids to have: checking your phone while driving, posting unkind content or ignoring someone else’s calls for your attention while your eyes are on the phone.”

Screen Time Recommendations for Teachers When Working with Students

Students no longer rush to the library to check out encyclopedias and periodicals, because learners of all ages now hold the power of the internet in their hands. Consequently, teachers must understand how to make learning-based screen time beneficial.

Use Screen Time for Research Purposes

In a survey from Education Week, 88% of principals said they prefer students to “use a device to conduct research, compared to 10% who prefer paper and pencil.” However, for other school activities, like taking standardized tests or practicing new math concepts, their preference is for students to use paper and pencil rather than digital devices. Conducting research, though, is by far the activity for which school leaders believe using a device with a screen is most beneficial.

Use Screen Time to Build Long-Distance Relationships

In an article for USA Today, Julia Freeland Fisher notes the benefit of technology that puts “new relationships within reach for students.” Dubbed “edtech that connects,” she says this application of certain digital tools enables students to create relationships with peers across the world or even engage with experts in other fields. Fisher adds, “This type of technology allows schools to transcend geographic, logistical and time barriers, giving students access to connections otherwise out of schools’ reach.”

Incorporate Screen Time When Preparing for In-Classroom Lessons

Just as screen time itself isn’t necessarily dangerous or damaging, screen time can be used to benefit both teachers and students. Scholastic lists several helpful websites for teachers, including resources that provide guidance on covering specific subjects.

For teachers, parents and students, the key to successful use of screen time is balance. Children and adults should carefully manage and monitor their screen time and determine if their use of digital devices is beneficial to themselves and their loved ones.

Be Screen Smart

All screen time isn’t terrible, but like sugar, sweets and high-calorie snacks, it should be consumed in moderation. Overindulging, even for just an hour or two each night, can negatively impact your health; your sleep; and the relationships you have with your friends, family and loved ones.

Recommended Reading:

Key Issues in Advertising That Impact Public Health

Rethinking the Issue of Heart Health Among the Nation’s Youth

Online Master of Public Health in Public Health Practice


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Screen Time and Children

American Academy of Pediatrics, Media and Children

American Cancer Society, “Cutting Down on Kids’ Screen Time”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Screen Time vs. Lean Time

Child Development Institute, Screen Time Recommendations for Parents: How Much Is Too Much for Kids?

Education Week, “Principals on Student Screen Time: 7 Takeaways from Education Week’s Exclusive Survey”

Elite Content Marketer, “Screen Time Statistics 2020: Your Smartphone Is Hurting You”

JAMA Pediatrics, “Association Between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test”

JAMA Pediatrics, “How to Consider Screen Time Limits…for Parents”

Mayo Clinic, Screen Time and Children: How to Guide Your Child

National Alliance on Mental Illness, “How to Reduce Screen Time in the Digital Age”

Nielsen, Time Flies: U.S. Adults Now Spending Nearly Half a Day Interacting with Media

Pew Research Center, “How Teens and Parents Navigate Screen Time and Device Distractions”

Preventive Medicine Reports, “Association Between Screen Time and Depression Among US Adults”

Reuters, “Parents Need Screen Time Limits, Too, Pediatricians Say”

Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, Build Screen Time Around Family Activities, Not the Other Way Round, Parents Told

Scholastic, “25 Best Websites for Teachers”

Time, “Too Much Screen Time Can Have Lasting Consequences for Young Children’s Brains”

U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Screen Time and Children”

USA Today, “Screen Time Isn’t All Bad: Technology Can Make Invaluable Connections for Students”