How Much Screen Time is Too Much? 4 Expert Screen Use Tips for Parents

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From phones and iPads to laptops and TVs, screens are just about everywhere in modern life. While it's impossible to completely avoid them, it's important to find a healthy balance of screen use to avoid addiction and negative effects on our mental health, work, and relationships. I wanted to explore this topic in more depth,  so I reached out to Dr. Cliff Sussman, a psychiatrist who specializes in screen addiction. Dr. Sussman has over 15 years of experience supporting people who are on the extreme end of their screen use. I figured he’d have some excellent insight on screen time for kids and recommendations for helping us get to a place where we find a balance and feel good about our screen use. In this article, we'll review Dr. Sussman's advice that he shared in our podcast episode and explore how we can achieve a healthier relationship with screens. Let's dive right in! 

Should Parents Limit Screen Time for Kids?

Yes! According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who are younger than 18-24 months of age should avoid screens if possible. Video chatting with friends and family is fine, but should ideally be minimal. For 2-5 year-olds, about 1 hour per day of screen time is recommended if they consume high-quality educational content. 

Parents should ease up on screen time restrictions for 6-12 year-olds, but still monitor the content they’re interacting with and make sure mental and physical health are being impacted by media consumption. It’s important to allow pre-teens and teenagers to have some autonomy over their level of screen time, but it can be beneficial to designate screen-free areas around the house. And never hesitate to check in with your kids on the TV shows, social media, and articles they’re viewing.

Screen Use and Our Brains

Before diving into how to find this healthy balance between kids and screen time, it’s important to understand what’s going on in the brain when we spend a ton of time on screens. Learning the brain connection helps support us when we have to make decisions about our screen use. Dr. Sussman explained that when we play video games or use social media, our brains get a boost of dopamine. He says that dopamine is “thought of as the pleasure neurotransmitter… People think we just release it when we get pleasure. But it's a little more nuanced than that. We release dopamine when we get exactly what we want, when we want it.”

This dopamine hit is exactly what those video games and social media do for our brains. Dr. Sussman explains that it becomes a problem when we expose our brains to that much dopamine for an extended amount of time. He says, “The brain wasn't designed to handle that much of getting what you want for that long time. And so you become desensitized to dopamine, the receptors in the brain for dopamine, they go through a process called down-regulation. And that and some other processes, basically result in you needing to work even harder to get instant gratification. And getting the same amount of dopamine that you did before won't feel as good, so you need even more.” And he explains that when you do stop, it doesn’t feel good, so you go back to the screen for another dopamine boost. 

Balancing High and Low Dopamine Activities

Dr. Sussman divides our daily activities into two categories - High Dopamine Activities (HDA) and Low Dopamine Activites (LDA). Using our screens for watching shows, playing games, or scrolling social media are all in the HDA category. Dr. Sussman says that making sure we spend time doing things that are in the LDA category is a great place to start for finding balance and helping our brains become less addicted to those HDAs. He explains that enjoyable LDAs, such as doing a puzzle, painting, or learning to play an instrument, “require more patience and have more delay in their gratification, but they're still gratifying” and worth doing, especially for our brain health.

Okay, so now that we know to prioritize finding balance between HDA and LDA but how do we do that? Approaching this from an executive function perspective, we see that there are a lot of tools that can support us while we try to achieve that balance. Let's explore 4 of the most practical tips for screen overuse.

Tip 1: Add More Structure Into Your Day

Dr. Sussman says the number one thing you can do is add structure to your schedule so there’s less downtime and less opportunity for grabbing that screen. He said that during the pandemic, the lack of structure for kids created a situation where screen use became a serious problem for some. We can add structure by having daily activities in which we participate, and in turn lower kids' screen time. Kids can join clubs at school, play sports, or join activities at the local library. As adults, going to work and having a regular exercise routine are two examples of good structure. If you work from home, it can be more challenging, but using a planner and timers to manage your time can really help. 

Tip 2: Set Screen Time Limits and Use Timers

Another way to add some structure is to find balance with the amount of time you are spending on HDA and LDA every day. Dr. Sussman recommends “setting some consistent time limits to how long you can be on a screen and how long you need to be off a screen or at least doing a low dopamine activity, if it is on a screen”. He reinforced that “the number one thing is not binging. So if you're keeping each screen block to a consistent length of time, an hour or less, depending on the age of the child, and waiting at least that amount of time before you get on again, especially during unstructured time, I think you're going to be way ahead of the game.”

You can find a tool to create a family screen time plan here. If your child is older, involving them in the time limit amount decision may help create some autonomy for them which may help them get off their screens easier when time is up. 

Speaking of time being up, setting timers is really helpful. They tell you when it’s time to switch to an LDA and they also alert you to the passage of time. Time distortion, or losing track of time, can happen very easily while we’re playing games or watching a show, so that timer can remind us that we’re still on our screens in an HDA and maybe it’s time to consider switching activities. 

No matter how you choose to implement this strategy, limiting screen time for kids is an important tactic to help find that balance between HDA and LDA.

Tip 3: Collaborate With Your Kids About Screen Use 

Dr. Sussman says that kids may not want to talk about their screen use, but as parents, we can encourage conversation about it by showing interest in what they’re watching or playing. He says, “I don't think parents should take it too personally if their kids don't want to talk about it. Kids do like when their parents care about what they're interested in. You can validate that they really enjoy their games, that they really enjoy their computer, and that it can be really tough for them to stop”. Something that’s very important to remember, says Dr. Sussman is that, “validating a behavior is not the same as enabling it”. He wants parents to know that “just because you're acknowledging that a kid loves their video game, or that they're really upset about having to stop playing it” doesn’t mean you’re going to enable them to have all the screen time they want.

Dr. Sussman also wants parents to know that “the most effective way to really influence our kids to be self-regulated and balanced is to be that way ourselves and to work on that ourselves as parents and actually model that behavior.” He suggests saying to your child, “Look, I set a timer, and I stopped when the timer went off, and it wasn't easy for me to do. I want to keep doing it, but I have to get back to work.” 

Tip 4: Set up a Healthy Screen Environment with Clear Boundaries

It can be much easier to find balance in screen time for kids when they learn to be mindful of the cues in their environment. We all react to these cues without even being aware of them, so it’s worth taking the time to set up an environment that is going to support the quest for balance.

Dr. Sussman suggests removing cues in the environment that make kids want to be on screens. Leaving phones in the other room while working or doing homework, blocking access to distracting websites, and not having phones in the bedroom at night are three effective ways to minimize screen time. He suggests a separate HDA zone with devices that stay in that zone at all times. After the allowed time in the HDA zone has run out, it’s time to leave that space and your kid's screen time is over.

Setting up and reinforcing agreed-upon consequences for breaking screen-time rules can also help. Dr. Sussman agrees that it is difficult to enforce these, but “it's important to have clear rules and consequences laid out and to be able to interact with your kids concerning those consequences…Try to meet them where they are, but also set some limits. Find a balance as a parent between setting limits, and allowing your kids to self-regulate, and, and not micromanaging them too much, and let them learn from their own natural consequences.”

So How Much Screen Time is Too Much? 

Dr. Sussman shared that the following behaviors can be indicators of a need for professional support to handle a screen addiction. 

  • Excessive lying about screen use
  • Stealing money to use screens
  • Aggression, when you try to separate the kid from their screen. 
  • High irritability when they're not on their screen. 

He suggests that if you suspect there’s a major problem and you can’t get help right away, it may be worth having a three to seven day detox, which can happen by going on a vacation or a camping trip where they end up being naturally separated from their screens. He explains that “a lot of parents will see huge changes just from really after, I'd say the second day, they can start seeing their kids’ personalities completely changed. And a lot of those red flags are seemingly gone”. He explains that this doesn't mean that the screen use problem doesn’t exist; it probably just proves you have the problem. As soon as they get their screens back, those problems will likely come back. At this point, it’s likely time to reach out for help.

The Takeaway

Screens are an inescapable part of our modern lives and it's essential to find a healthy balance of screen use. If we add structure to our days, set screen time limits for kids, and find enjoyable low dopamine activities that require patience and have more delay in gratification, we may find it easier to attain that balance. Modeling this behavior for our kids and involving them in decisions about screen time use can help improve our children’s screen use balance, as well. We can’t stop using screens, so let’s work to find a way to incorporate them into our lives in a healthy way. In the meantime, if you want to hear more from Dr. Sussman, be sure to check out the full conversation on our podcast episode! 


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About the Author

Hannah Choi

Hannah Choi, MA is an Executive Function Coach and host of the host of Beyond BookSmart's podcast, Focus Forward. She has over 20 years of experience working with students of all ages, from preschool to college students. Hannah is a graduate of The University of Rochester where she earned a BA in Psychology, and The University of California at Santa Barbara, where she earned an MA in Education.

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