How Much Screen Time Is Right for Kids?

An expert on the effects of media on children offers real-world suggestions for moderating exposure to TV, computers and smartphones

kids in front of TV

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that parents limit television and computer for very young children, saying that it discourages media use for children under the age of 2. There are, in fact, no educational programs written for that age group, the academy reported, and even leaving TV on in the background distracts both adults and children, stealing the opportunity to interact with others or play.

Julie Dobrow, the director of the Communications and Media Studies program at Tufts, examines the effects of media on children and runs media literacy training workshops for parents, teachers and students. She says the key to the wise use of media is for parents of children of all ages to know what their kids are watching on television or viewing on a smartphone or computer screen.

Tufts Now: How many screens does the average household have?

About 10. Most of the research shows that there are more screens per capita in households where there are children under age 18 than in houses without children. It’s TVs and computers and, increasingly, phones.

Several years ago the pediatrics academy recommended that children under age 2 shouldn’t watch television at all. Now they say to limit viewing. What happened?

The academy got a lot of flak when they had that incredibly restrictive suggestion, because parents, people from the industry and even other pediatricians were saying that was unrealistic. It’s not just unrealistic about TV, but about the other kinds of screens that children are increasingly exposed to today.

Do many people keep TV on in the background?

The reality is we have television on in the background a lot. For students, it may be when they’re doing homework. In households where there is more than one child, it can be difficult for a parent to control, since older children may be watching something and younger children are around and exposed to it.


“There is an explosion of media materials for children coming out on all kinds of different platforms,” says Julie Dobrow.“There is an explosion of media materials for children coming out on all kinds of different platforms,” says Julie Dobrow.

Aren’t some of the concerns about media today the same as we’ve been hearing for decades?

The Payne Fund Studies in the early 1930s, when media research was in its infancy, looked at film. They are interesting because they asked a lot of the same questions that are being asked today about smartphones, Facebook and Twitter.

First, there were questions about basic demographics: who is using this technology, in what numbers, how are they using it and how much? The second set of questions is always about kids: proponents of any new technology wonder how it might open new worlds and educational possibilities for them, while opponents question whether children are being exposed too much to things that are inappropriate for them developmentally, especially in regard to sex and violence. And for every technology—TV, video games, smartphones—it’s the same questions.

What’s changed, of course, is that there is an explosion of media materials for children coming out on all kinds of different platforms, and there is more available than there ever was. The good news is there are more options. The bad news is a lot of it isn’t very good.

What should parents do?

One recommendation is to be careful and critical consumers. Before sharing an application on a smartphone with a child, look at it and play with it. Is this something that might have value? Is it consonant with your values? And this holds true with any sort of technology parents would expose their children to, whether Facebook or TV.

How have TV-viewing habits changed?

We have the increased potential to consume media in more private ways. My students talk about this all the time. None of them watches TV in real time with other people; they watch it privately on laptops. That certainly allows us more flexibility and freedom, but something is lost in the way we consume media. When you watch TV by yourself instead of on a common screen in a dorm room, it’s not the same kind of social activity that it once was.

One of my students did her senior project on this topic, and one of her concerns was that students are getting more stressed out because of 24/7 media access, obsessively checking Facebook and their phones to see if they received messages. That makes them more anxious.

What are young children being exposed to that perhaps their older siblings weren’t?

Something interesting going on is the pass-back effect, which you see in the grocery store all the time. A parent will pass a phone back to a child, not so the child can use it to make calls or get on the Internet, but because there are apps and games for them. It keeps the kid occupied while mom is paying for the groceries. The same is true in cars, when the phone is passed to children in the backseat.

A recent study showed that the largest percentage of educational apps was specifically targeted to preschoolers and toddlers, so the industry sees this as a viable market. We still don’t know if those apps are helpful. In one of my classes, we’ve been talking about that very question; there is little published research about this to date.

What about educational software or educational television?

The jury is still out on whether educational software is helpful. There is some research out there that suggests it may be educational, but these technologies haven’t been around as long as TV—and that’s where the research exists.

Most research has found that media, TV in particular, can assist in teaching young children both cognitive/academic skills like letter or number recognition, colors, shapes and days of the week, and also social/emotional skills, like what it means to share, exposure to different types of cultures, etc. Researchers have found that these educational effects seem to happen primarily with children older than 2, and that they are enhanced when reinforced by a parent or caregiver.

Should we shut off background TV and limit access to other screens?

As the mother of four children, I think that for many people, that’s unrealistic. My own philosophy has always been that rather than be prescriptive about such things, I try to make media use for my children an educational experience. So rather than put huge restrictions on what they can watch or listen to, I’ve always tried to teach them to make good choices. To me that also means you’re with the child as much as possible. A child can’t learn this unless you help. It’s time consuming, but it gets less so as kids get older.

How can parents best help their kids make good choices?

Published research about TV says when you do have educational effects from programs, they are greatly enhanced by reinforcement with an adult. So even the really high-quality shows like Sesame Street or Between the Lions are helped when you have a parent or caregiver there who can comment on what’s happening and can say things like, “Why is Cookie Monster so upset?”

The strongest learning happens when a parent can be there and talk about something. Leaving a child alone with a screen on is isolating.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

Back to Top