Children and Technology: Should Kids’ Screen Time Be Limited?

The first time I had to take both kids with me to my doctor’s appointment I vowed I’d never do it again. We waited over 30 minutes in the exam room. By the time the physician finally walked in, my kids had distributed the contents of the exam table cupboards evenly across the floor, twice sent the mobile stool crashing into the opposing wall, unrolled the exam table covering, and sung the alphabet song multiple times at full volume. As the doctor walked in, a fight erupted over who would sit by momma. Then, while I was being examined, they decided it would be a good time to roll on the floor across the room. I was finally able to slink out—definitely in worse health than when I’d arrived.

Two weeks later, I had a follow-up appointment. The babysitter I’d lined up had to cancel, my husband couldn’t get off work, my mom couldn’t come over, and I found myself once more in the tiny exam room with two children in tow trying to entertain them for an ill-defined period of time. This time, however, I tried a new tactic. I gave them each an old iPhone. My husband and I had recently upgraded and I’d hung on to the old ones since they had no trade in value. I decided to bring them along and see if they would entertain the kids. I hadn’t installed any games onto either of them, but hoped they’d enjoy just getting to hold a once forbidden object. I hit a jackpot. The kids were entranced. In fact, they stayed fixated to the phones for more than an hour, not even looking up when the doctor walked into the room. By the time the appointment was finished, my two and four year old children had become iPhone navigational experts.

The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) has released a very strong statement on screen time (i.e. television, video games, smartphones and tablets). They advocate no screen time for children less than 2 years old and less than 2 hours/day of screen time for children 2 years and older.[1] More and more research is demonstrating the potential developmental harm with even so called “educational” programs. Even the brainy “Baby Einstein” videos may decrease vocabulary by 6-8 words for every hour watched per day![2] Screen time can be detrimental to older children as well and has been linked with obesity, decreased physical activity, depression, and anxiety.[3][4]

With all the research showing the detrimental effects of screen time, how have parents reacted? According to a New York Times article published just five years ago, despite a decade of research showing the harmful effects of media, more children are using media than ever before![5] The reason, as always, is multi-factorial. However, one prominent component is the instant “shut-up” such media provides. I’ve experienced this myself. Instead of peeling my kids off the walls at a doctor’s office, I can now hand them a multimedia device, and poof! They almost disappear while happily playing in zombie-like tranquility.

However nice this sounds, allowing my children to escape into a world of technology, is not teaching them real-life skills such as self-control, contentment, self-efficacy, or creativity, to name just a few. Nor is it encouraging interaction with others. Greetings are unacknowledged, siblings are ignored, and parents are relegated to the role of “master technician” with their presence only being acknowledged when a game component doesn’t function properly.

The promiscuity of media makes it very difficult to limit. Everywhere you go, turn, visit, multimedia is available. Again for many of the same reasons, it allows people an escape from the current situation (at the dentist’s waiting for a filling, waiting for an oil change, flying on an airplane, etc.). This is very concerning, especially in light of new data showing the detrimental effects of media on adult brains: decreasing concentration, memory, and test scores.[6][7]

Knowing something is detrimental and changing one’s behavior because of this knowledge are two separate steps. Many people, for example, know smoking isn’t good but still continue to smoke. There has to be a systems-based approach for changing the amount of screen time we (and our children) have exposure to. One first step would be to analyze how much screen time you and your child have per day. Make a list of all media devices and log how many minutes is spent on each device in a 24-hour period. Do this for a couple of days and average it out. Figure out which device seems to lead to the most screen time and then try creative strategies to replace it with something else. A simple google search for “how to limit screen time” will lead to multiple websites with excellent ideas. Some examples include:

  • Taking TV’s out of kids bedrooms (or out of the house entirely)
  • Setting time limits on devices
  • Getting kids involved in cooking and chores
  • Getting kids involved in sports or playing outside
  • Encouraging children to play with board games or puzzles
  • Spend more time with arts and crafts
  • Putting more value on conversation during mealtimes and car rides
  • Setting an example by using less media yourself

One simple thing I have done is create a toy bag that I take with me to various appointments. This bag has a couple of fun books, paper and crayons, toy cars, a doll, and a few other random objects my children enjoy playing with. Another thing I’ve started doing is telling them stories from when I was a little girl. This is a big hit; I discovered entertains them for hours as well as provides them with a connection to the past.

I don’t dread doctor’s visits like I used to and I discovered I don’t have to rely on electronic media to babysit my children. With a little planning ahead, I hope to raise calm, media-free children.



[1] “Media and Children.”

[2] Park, Alice. “Baby Einsteins: Not So Smart After All.” Time.,8599,1650352,00.html.

[3] Rosen, L. D., A. F. Lim, J. Felt, L. M. Carrier, N. A. Cheever, J. M. Lara-Ruiz, J. S. Mendoza, and J. Rokkum. “Media and Technology Use Predicts Ill-Being among Children, Preteens and Teenagers Independent of the Negative Health Impacts of Exercise and Eating Habits.” Computers in Human Behavior 35 (June 2014): 364–75. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.01.036.

[4] Maras, Danijela, Martine F. Flament, Marisa Murray, Annick Buchholz, Katherine A. Henderson, Nicole Obeid, and Gary S. Goldfield. “Screen Time Is Associated with Depression and Anxiety in Canadian Youth.” Preventive Medicine 73C (February 2, 2015): 133–38. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.01.029.

[5] Lewin, Tamar. “Screen Time Higher Than Ever for Children, Study Finds.” The New York Times, October 25, 2011.

[6] Maass, Asja, Klara Maria Klöpper, Friederike Michel, and Arnold Lohaus. “Does Media Use Have a Short-Term Impact on Cognitive Performance?” Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications 23, no. 2 (January 1, 2011): 65–76. doi:10.1027/1864-1105/a000038.

[7] Zavodny, Madeline. “Does Watching Television Rot Your Mind? Estimates of the Effect on Test Scores.” Economics of Education Review 25, no. 5 (October 2006): 565–73. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2005.08.003.

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Rachel Nelson MD

graduated from Loma Linda University and completed a pediatric residency at UC Davis. She has a passion for helping children reach their full potential. She is married to a colorectal surgeon and together they have two children: Amy and Michael. Dr. Nelson enjoys playing outside with her kids, gardening, and music.

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