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How Much Screen Time For Children? An Expert Guide For Parents

Discover the recommended screen time guidelines for your children. 

A young girl sits on a bed surrounded by plush teddy bears, reading a glowing book in a dimly lit room adorned with twinkling fairy lights.
By Professor Sam Wass, Child Development Expert

Fennies’ Child Development Expert, Professor Sam Wass, shares his tips on limiting your child’s screen time, how much screen time is too much and how screen time can benefit children’s development. Sam is a father of two and a child psychologist and neuroscientist best known for Channel 4’s ‘Secret Life of a Four-and Five-Year-Old’s’. 

The Challenge of Screen Time

“I ju – u – u – st want o – o – one mo – o – o – re Octo-nau – au – au – au – ts!” was the yell from my 3-year-old son Freddie this morning as we dragged him away from iPad to go and get some breakfast. I’m happy with him watching Octonauts as he learns a lot from it – this morning he was learning about the subnivean zone which I thought was pretty amazing for 3! – but like most parents, the thing that freaks me out about Freddie and TV is just how much he loves it. Everything else – eating, talking, running around, cuddling with mummy and daddy – pales in interest when there’s TV available. 

The way he behaves you certainly get the feel that, if he had the choice, that’s all he’d do, just sit and watch TV forever – like the famous case in South Korea of the couple who left their baby unattended while they went online gaming. It’s the strength of the attraction that screens have combined with the strong reactions that children often show when they’re taken away, that makes screen time such a challenging topic for so many parents.

A toddler with blonde hair, wearing a polka dot shirt and red shoes, watches a tablet intently while sitting in an airplane seat next to a window.

Screens or no screens?

Even though most of the parents I’ve talked to about screen time limits think the same as me about this, it’s also true that not many parents would go the whole hog and remove screens from their kids’ lives completely. 

Even if we could, I’m not sure we should. Screens are a child’s window onto the world – the only way for him or her to see and hear about anything that’s not directly there in front of their nose. It’s easy to forget that if my son Freddie had been growing up even a hundred years ago before screens existed, he’d almost certainly never have seen an elephant, or an iceberg, or a desert, or anything at all beyond the tiny pockets of the world where he lives. 

There are so many things that enrich and educate him, that he gets from screens. So how do we keep screens in his life, but in a happy, controlled and balanced way? And where is the point at which healthy screen use, which stimulates learning and enriches a child’s imagination, turns unhealthy, and becomes screen addiction?  

A child’s screen time: how much is too much screen time?

The answer to this question varies massively from parent to parent. Many parents try to avoid excessive screen time and will limit it to a few, tightly controlled minutes. Whereas other parents will have no screen time limits and let them watch for hours on end. So how do we know who’s right? 

One place to start is with the official guidelines. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends strict controls, which vary depending on a child’s age. They suggest: 

Under 18 months 

No screen time (other than, for example, video chatting with family members) 

18 – 24 months 

Screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver. 

2 – 5 years 

Non-educational screen time should be limited to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on the weekend. 

6 years+ 

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t have a recommended screen limit, but they always recommend that screens should be turned off at least 30-60 minutes before bedtime. 

A toddler with an open-mouthed expression is using a tablet at a kitchen table, with a bowl of strawberries nearby and a colorful doll sitting beside her.

Why not all ways of using screens are the same

My personal take on this, though, as a psychologist, is that it’s more complex. Nowadays there are so many different ways of using screens from video chatting with family members, to online classes, to TV, to gaming, to social media. For reasons I’ll explain in this post, I think that some ways of using screens are much more psychologically beneficial than others, and it’s important to bear this in mind when we consider how much time is the ‘right amount’ of screen time for a child. Here’s why… 

Is the TV on in the foreground or background?   

If a TV is playing, is it ‘foreground TV’ where everyone is sitting and watching TV and there’s nothing else going on? Or is it ‘background TV’ – where it’s just on in the background, and people are playing, reading, or talking at the same time? Having the TV on in the background is something I recommend avoiding completely with young children if you can. Children pay attention very differently to adults, and where adults are pretty good at ‘shutting out’ background noise, by ignoring the TV when they don’t want to pay attention to it. Having the TV on in the background affects children’s concentration patterns whilst they’re playing with toys. It can also affect how children pay attention to, and learn from, the language that they hear from other family members at home. 

If you’re talking to your child at home whilst there’s someone else taking on the TV in the background, then your child’s brain will find it hard to pick apart those two speech streams that are reaching them, so they won’t learn so well from either. 

Two young boys focused on using tablets while sitting barefoot on a blue couch in a cozy, wooden-paneled room with large windows.

Is the screen use interactive? 

Another important thing to consider about screen time (that I talk about more here and here), is between passive uses of screens (like TV and YouTube, where you just press play and then sit back and the information just comes at you) and interactive uses of screens (like games, where you’re constantly generating what appears one screen next through what you do). Just passively watching a screen is pretty easy for our brains. Whereas interactive screen use challenges our brains quite a bit more: we have to do things like generating our ideas, using forward planning, and processing feedback (‘OK that didn’t work, I’ll have to try something different’). All of these tax a child’s brain in a number of different useful ways. 

So interactive screen uses are good, whereas passive uses of screens aren’t as good. It’s a bit like the way in which old-fashioned approaches to teaching, where the children just sit passively and copy out from a blackboard, have given way to more interactive approaches, where children are encouraged to ask questions and try to figure out the answers for themselves.   

Children know this, too – that just passively watching someone else do something is easier than trying to do it themselves – which is why they’ll often prefer to watch a YouTube video of another child playing computer games rather than actually play the game themselves. But they learn more from playing the game themselves. This is why I’d personally allow a child to play online games when they’re fully alert during the daytime (if they’re good ones, that don’t just involve doing one thing over and over again). Whereas I’d keep TV for relaxation time, when they’re tired.

A young child in a striped shirt uses a tablet on a wooden table, focusing intently on the screen with his fingers touching the display.

Does the screen content involve simulated threat or danger?

We’ve shown in my lab, and many other people have found too, that when a child is watching TV or playing a game in which a character is in simulated threat or danger, their body responds by reacting as if the child is in actual real physical danger themselves. We have something called the Fight or Flight nervous system in our bodies, which is a set of physical responses (like your heart beating faster, increased energy release into the muscles and so on), that our body has developed to allow us to respond to actual real, physical danger. 

When a young child is consuming screen content or playing video games that involve simulated threat or danger we can see that their Fight or Flight nervous system is starting up – even though they’re in no actual physical danger themselves. Their brains can’t tell yet between simulated danger and actual real physical danger. 

 This is why you might notice that your child has been sweating when they’ve been playing a computer game, even though it’s not hot in the room – because sweating is part of our Fight or Flight system. This might also be why children often kick up such a fight when you try to take their screens away because their bodies are in ‘fight’ mode already as a result of what they’ve been watching, and they take it out on you. 

 We don’t know what the long-term effect of spending a lot of time in Fight or Flight mode is on children, but on balance, I wouldn’t expect the long-term effects to be beneficial. So, in my home, we’re definitely more careful about limiting screen time that’s more violent than other types.

A young girl in a striped shirt laughs heartily, her mouth wide open, in a brightly lit room with white chairs and a table in the background.

The Impact of Too Much Screen Time on Child Development

So, there are lots of different types of screen time, and the effects of some types on children are likely to be stronger than others. But if we’re getting a lot of screen time, particularly of the less beneficial sorts, then what are the effects on a child likely to be? 

One finding is that, when you look across a whole population, children who get more screen exposure overall tend to show worse language outcomes and worse concentration. But it’s tricky to be sure from this that screen time causes these problems – because this is a correlational finding, and we know that correlations don’t prove causation. It may be, for example, that families, where the child gets more screen time, tend on average to have parents who are busier or less engaged with parenting and it’s parenting quality that ‘really’ causes the effects on child concentration. Or it could be that families where the child gets more screen time tend on average to have lower income, and so can’t afford to feed their children so well and it’s the diet that ‘really’ causes the effects on the child’s concentration. 

There are any number of these additional possible factors, and we’ll never know just from spotting a relationship between two things that they are associated, and that how much screen time a child gets is directly linked to their mental health or concentration. However, recent findings do look as if there is a significant pattern that more screen time is associated with worse concentration during later development – but it is a weak one, which may be stronger in boys than girls.

A young boy wearing glasses sits cross-legged on a sofa, concentrating on playing a game on a handheld device. he wears a yellow shirt, blue jacket, and beige pants.

Other studies have tried to get around the ‘correlation doesn’t prove causation’ point by looking instead at how giving a specific ‘dose’ of screen time affects children. To do this they gave a short dose of screen time to children and measured the effects on the concentration immediately before and after. Another study gave ‘simulated TV’ (flashing lights and noises to mice) and measured the long-term effects. 

There are various problems and challenges to all of these methods, but overall, the picture doesn’t look great. Immediately after watching TV (particularly fast-paced, violent TV) concentration seems to be impaired and movement levels seem to be up. 

Tips for managing child screen time and promoting healthy habits in children

So how can we maximise the positive effects of screens, while minimising some of these downsides? Here are a few brief pointers: 


Many parents tend to whip out a screen as an emergency measure, saved for times when it’s absolutely needed to help a child calm down. But eventually, a child needs to be able to calm down on their own, and using screens as pacifiers can doesn’t help a child learn how to calm down in the long run. 

Other parents will tend to use screen time as a reward but this can have long-term negative effects too. Instead, it’s best to try to be super consistent about when screen time is coming, and how long it will last. The same amount of screen time happens at the same time each day, irrespective of if they (and you!) are in a good mood or a bad one. 

A joyful family moment with a man, woman, and young girl smiling while looking at a smartphone together in a bright living room.

Be prepared for your children to be in ‘Fight or Flight’ mode after 

For the reasons I described above, all children tend to be in Fight or Flight mode for a while after watching TV. Because of this, it’s super easy for you to trigger a fight by accident for example, by taking the screens away unexpectedly. But even if you do manage to get the screens off them without a fight, then make sure to allow plenty of time to burn off all the excess energy they have through physical activity afterwards (outside, if possible, as they’ll calm down quicker that way). 

Watch with them if you can

This last point is perhaps the trickiest one (particularly in my family, where we save screen time for 6 a.m. when they’ve just woken up, and I can never resist the urge to roll over and get another 15 minutes of sleep!) But one thing I’d recommend is to sit with your child and engage with them during screen time. This helps, for a lot of reasons. 

First, screen time is stressful because they can’t tell imaginary danger from real danger yet and having you there with them can help them to relax. Second, some of the strongest downsides of screen time are related to impaired language which may be because when you’re watching TV children get less time to practice talking. If you’re there watching with them this can be a great time to talk for example by talking about what happened in the show or after it finished. 


Screen time is the part of parenting that’s changed most radically, certainly since I was a child! I have to pinch myself to remember what it was like back then when the kid’s programs were only on TV once or twice a day, and the only computer we had a home was a BBC Micro that didn’t stretch too much beyond a game of Pong! 

The question of whether screens are overall good or overall bad for children’s development is hugely complicated. But they’re here to stay, whether we like them or not. I hope that these tips have helped you to differentiate between good and not-so-good ways of using screens, and to think about how to have happy screen time in your family.

Professor Sam Wass

Professor Sam Wass

Child Development Expert

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