How to Manage Your Child’s Tablet and Smartphone Screen Time


There has been a debate raging on whether screen time or tablet and smartphone use is helpful or harmful to a child. Since these devices are new, scientific studies do not yet have a lot of data on the issue, and some of the early results are contradicting.

One finding that stands out, however, is that when parents manage a child’s screen time, iPad or Android tablets, as well as smartphones can help the child learn, communicate and socialize, while avoiding the health and emotional problems sometimes associated with device overuse.

To minimize the harmful effects and maximize the benefits of screen time, here are some guidelines for managing your child’s use of tablets and smart phones. It is important for parents to establish screen time guidelines early in your child’s life so that it lays a foundation for later behavior:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics prescribes no screen time for kids below 2 (except for video chatting) so it won’t disrupt being engaged in practicing motor skills and developing interpersonal relationships.
  • The World Health Organization in 2019, echoing this, recommends no screen time for infants and 1 year olds, children between 2 and 5 should be limited to one hour of screen time per day, and the less the better. This is not because screens are themselves dangerous to children. But a child’s preoccupation with the screen robs her of time to be physically active and get much needed sleep. Physical activity and exercise offers a lot of benefits needed for a child’s physical and mental development.
  • Make screen time an interaction between you and your toddler or young child. Make it a shared three-dimensional experience. The brain development and language development happens when you talk about what is happening on screen, similar to reading a book to your child. Make it a dialog, discuss important concepts, exchange ideas, and relate what your child is learning to real life. “Humans learn best when they are actively involved with the material.”
  • If possible, limit your child’s screen time to educational material that can still be fun (here are some suggestions for educational apps for babies and toddler). A 2014 Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York study examined infants 0-3 years old that used touch-screen devices to determine if their use was of any educational benefit to infants and toddlers. The study showed that children who played non-educational games using touch-screen devices had lower verbal scores upon testing.
  • Ebooks that read to your child should not give you a pass on your educational responsibility to him. Actual reading to your child has many profound benefits.
  • Don’t use screens as silencer or pacifier.
  • Never let your toddler be occupied with screens when they are outdoors.
  • Too much screen time means less time for other activities like actively playing with other children or reading. As in most things, moderation and balance is the key.
  • There are 2 ways of using the screen, for consuming entertainment and for using it as teaching tool or a way to connect. Limit the entertainment consumption to one hour, and be more flexible with social, productive (like posting a creative work or a valuable YouTube video, and educational use of screens.
  • Use the build-in parental controls in the device, if present. It’s a good idea to set it high, and let your child go to you to adjust the restriction. This will be an opportunity for you to talk with him about what he is doing online.
  • Choose media that is geared towards children.
  • It’s not so much the length of screen time that’s important, but the nature of the screen time. See to it that what your child is watching, playing and reading is high quality and safe.
  • For older kids, make them play apps that are educational yet fun and even make earning a game like Duolingo (for learning a foreign language), Khan Academy (videos for learning almost anything), or King of Math (learning math).
  • Interactive media engages the brain more than passive media like TV. So if the alternative use of interactive screen time is watching TV, encourage your child to choose playing with the smartphone or tablet instead.
  • Find ways to integrate screen-based content with ordinary play or use apps that provide this opportunity.
  • Parents and children should work together to decide how much time screen time is ideal, and make good choices about what media to consume. Tell your child why you are setting a limit, and why she would benefit from sticking to it.
  • Create rules for using smart phones and tablets – even if it’s generous – and make sure your child follows it. For example, one hour of reading or playing sports in exchange for one hour of screen, only one hour on school days or three hours on weekends, etc. Instill this as a habit on your child, as they are creatures of habits and routine.
  • Consider giving your kids a list of things to do before they can use their screen like doing homework, reading for an hour, and/or finishing their chores.
  • Also, you can make consuming entertainment content as a reward for good behavior.
  • Set rules for times when no use of smartphones and tablets is permitted, such as dinner and family conversations, driving, or a set time when kids are only allowed to read books or do homework.
  • Make your child understand that he needs enough sleep to fight against the bad effects of sleep-deprivation, and your limiting his screen time is for his own good, not yours.
  • Tell your child to end screen time at least one hour before bedtime. A hard cutoff time prevents your child from haggling for more screen time, and allows for smoother evening routine. Routine is a major influence on human behavior, and kids, who respond well to routine, should learn good ones early.
  • Create a Personalized Family Media Use plan to create goals and rules of screen use consistent with your family’s values
  • Consider making it a rule for kids not to have any kind of screen in the bedroom to avoid sleep quantity and quality disruption and the negative effect of blue light on the eye.
  • Your child models your behavior. If he sees you using your iPhone or tablet too much, he will probably do the same thing. Also, show that your child is your priority over screens by spending more time with her, or by talking with her when she arrives after school. When talking to your child, don’t be distracted by texting or swiping on your phone.
  • Consider using parental control apps that helps manage your kid’s screen use, limit time spent on the device, and block inappropriate sites and apps. Examples are, ESet parental control and Norton Family Premiere.
  • For teens, teach them or give them rules on appropriate online behavior.
  • Encourage your child to socially interact with others not only digitally, but also outside the screen.
  • Create ways to make the whole family active, schedule a physical activity each day to mitigate the effect of the kids’ being sedentary when they engage in too much screen time. Enroll your child in baseball, soccer, baskeball, or any sports that provides a structured form of physical activity outside school and helps promote an active lifestyle.
  • Teach your child to use technology to make a positive effect on himself and the world, instead of using it for mindless entertainment, or worse, having a negative effect on people.
  • Photo credit: “The modern toddler iPad experience” by Wayan Vota is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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