My clinical work with parents allows me to learn about various strategies that parents use in moderating their children’s involvement with video games and other digital technologies. So, how much screen time is good for kids? Perhaps the most common approach that I hear is to limit a child’s use with the refrain, “an hour a day.” While I’m not totally convinced that parents monitor this amount of time closely, this approach suggests that many of them are comfortable with the idea of their children’s involvement with digital technologies, as long as it’s not too much. Unfortunately, for some parents, this approach is used as a way to limit the exposure their children get to something the parents think may be bad for them, rather than looking at this hour as an opportunity for their children to learn.
Many parents have reported to me that they needed to set this type of limit on digital-technology use because their kids were unable to stop themselves from becoming overly engaged in playing video games or from being in constant electronic connection with their friends. Some parents report that they have gone as far as having texting options turned off on their children’s phones after 9 p.m., or disconnecting the Internet at a certain point each day. Most parents who use this system find that it generally works well with their children. Children need, and may in fact even appreciate, limits being set for them. In their own way, children recognize that parents are demonstrating care and concern when parents tell them things such as, “Eat your dinner before your dessert,” “Do your homework before you go out and play with your friends,” or “Find something else to do besides play video games.”
The hour-a-day approach is particularly helpful for children who need routines and structure. It is clear-cut and can reduce daily conflicts about access to digital media, as long as it’s well-defined and consistently monitored.
When choosing this approach, we suggest the following strategies:
- Have a clear definition of what constitutes optional digital-media use for your children. As children get older, they have an increasing need to use computers to do homework; they might use word processing for typing essays or get on the Internet to do research for class projects. In general, this should not be a part of their optional digital-media use.
- Have a clear and consistent approach as to how you monitor the amount of time your children spend using their optional digital-media time. Some families use a timer; others rely on their children to monitor themselves or to check in with their parents when they are going to use their optional time. Others set aside a specific hour each day for their video-game and other digital-media use.
- Don’t be afraid to make exceptions to the rule as long as you are in charge of these exceptions. For example, when your children get a new PlayStation on Christmas, let them play with it as long as they like. If you’re taking a long car trip and playing a hand-held video game keeps everyone happy (including you), change the rules for that day. If you’re “snowed in” and your kids are itching for something to do, suggest to them that this is a day that they can play for an extra hour or two.
- If your kids really enjoy playing video games and using other digital media, let them extend their hour a day by doing things such as playing a video game with family members, playing a serious game that will teach them about important social and cultural issues, or training you or a younger sibling in the use of a particular digital technology such as a video camera or a Smartphone.
- You might also choose to work on a specific thinking or academic skill while playing some of the games recommended on the LearningWorks for Kids website. While these games are fun, they are selected for the purpose of improving specific thinking and academic skills. Using the associated PlayBooks can help children to apply that skill in the real world.
- Consider your child’s age. An hour a day (or whatever amount you select) may be more than enough for younger children but not quite enough for teenagers. Whether you like it or not, in today’s world healthy teenagers want to be in constant contact with their peers by frequently texting their friends or checking their Facebook status. As a result, you may want to give your teenagers a bit more time to spend using their technologies.
- Don’t set an hour a day (or another amount of time) arbitrarily. Give some thought to how busy your children are in other areas, how much time they need to do their schoolwork, your own set of values around digital media, and how this approach works for your entire household. While parents do not need to explain the reasons for every decision they make in their household, it is worthwhile for you to explain your thinking about the limits you have set. For example, you might want to talk about your desire for your children to have time to complete their homework, pursue artistic interests, spend time outdoors, or be involved in more face-to-face activities.
Who is “an hour a day” good for?
An hour-a-day schedule for digital media is often a good solution for children who have difficulty setting limits for themselves, whether that be playing video games, talking on cell phones, or regulating their behavior in other situations. For children who have problems with self-regulation, it may be useful to designate a certain time each day for video-game and other digital-media use. Obviously, accommodations need to be made when circumstances change.
This type of schedule may also be helpful for children who need a great deal of time to do their homework and may be struggling in school. While I do not advocate pre-teens spending any more than two hours a day doing homework (and generally only an hour a day), there are some children who take a long time to do their homework, and spending too much time involved with digital media can take away from the time necessary to complete their work.
An hour-a-day is also a good strategy for children who may be content to spend time by themselves and become overly immersed in playing solitary video games or get lost surfing the Internet. This schedule pushes them into doing other activities and may be useful to help them engage in more social situations with face-to-face opportunities.