Kids and Screen Time: Healthy in Moderation

Digital play (playing with screens and technology) should be considered part of a balanced “play diet,” says Randy Kuhlman, Director of Learning Works For Kids. A balanced play diet includes physical play, social play, creative play, unstructured play, and digital play.

BY DR. JENNIFER SULLIVAN

Lots of kids love spending time on screens and may find it difficult to use technology in moderation. A 2019 study by Common Sense Media found that 47 percent of girls and 32 percent of boys say that they spend too much time on their mobile devices. What’s more, a whopping 61 percent of parents reported that they think their child is addicted to their device.

Excessive technology use can have negative consequences. Among these are obesity due to reduced physical activity, sleep problems (trouble falling asleep or getting inadequate sleep), decreased socialization, poor language development, shorter attention span, and the loss of time for other interests and activities beneficial for their development.

On the other hand, technology use, when used in moderation, can have positive effects. Technology can improve engagement and enhance learning. Games, apps, and videos can help children learn specific concepts and skills. Technology use can foster creativity and help develop cognitive skills such as problem-solving, planning, organization, and time management. Another clear benefit is the development of digital literacy (technological know-how) that will be essential throughout their education and careers.

Digital play (playing with screens and technology) should be considered part of a balanced “play diet,” says Randy Kuhlman, Director of Learning Works For Kids. A balanced play diet includes physical play, social play, creative play, unstructured play, and digital play.

Many parents are at a loss when it comes to how much time they should allow their child to spend on screens. While there is no definitive answer, research focused on video gaming suggests that about one hour of technology use per day is good for kids, while over three hours per day can have a detrimental effect on mental health.

To best support your child in learning to use technology effectively and with moderation, consider the following strategies:

  1. Model appropriate use of technology. Many parents have likely uttered the phrase (perhaps jokingly) “Do as I say, not as I do.” However, research shows that children’s behaviour is significantly more affected by modelling than by telling them what to do. Furthermore, a 2019 study published by Common Sense Media found 38 percent of teens feel their parent is addicted to their mobile device.
  2. Talk about screen time with your child. Ask them questions about their technology use and respond in a non-judgmental and non-punitive manner.
  3. Learn about the games, apps, and videos that your child is using. Spend time with them on technology and let them share this world with you.
  4. Regarding time limits, you know your child best and are in the best position to determine what is most appropriate for them. Keep in mind that not all screen time is the same. Consider allowing more time for higher quality activities (e.g., learning and creative games, apps, and videos).
  5. When enforcing time limits, consistency is key. Consider using technology to control screen time through apps such as Apple Screen Time and Google Family.
  6. Provide alternative activities to screen time. Be proactive by creating a list of alternative activities that your child can refer to. Some ideas include reading, crafts, sports, board games, playing outside, community activities, and family outings.

Technology and screens are an indelible part of our lives in the twenty-first century, and they are here to stay. Our focus should be on figuring out how to live with them and how to use them effectively. Yes, we need to set limits and to model healthy technology use. But as Kuhlman notes, “rather than criticizing digital play, it’s better to help kids use it to develop and grow.”


“Changing the Conversation” is a monthly column by Jennifer Sullivan, Psychologist and CEO of Sullivan + Associates Clinical Psychology, that focuses on normalizing mental health issues through education and public awareness. It appears on the Healthstyle page on the second Tuesday of each month.

Recommended for you