What are the appropriate digital limits for your child right now and as they grow?

By on 11-13-2019

A child psychologist’s age-by-age guide to technology use for children from birth to 17 

Digital device use has been increasing now for many years. Parents and caregivers are right to be concerned about how much time their children spend on devices, what kind of content they are consuming, and the potential risks related to both. But there are still very few scientifically based guidelines available to let us know definitively what constitutes healthy or unhealthy device use for children, and many of those are conflicting.

Much of the confusion stems from the simple fact that every child, culture, and circumstance is unique. And not all screen time is the same. For example, many recommendations have been modified to reflect the fact that many children are spending at least that much time in front of screens during the school day alone. What is clear is that a one-size-fits-all approach to screen time for children and teens is unrealistic. 

...a one-size-fits-all approach to screen time for children and teens is unrealistic.

I take many factors into account when helping my clients determine healthy expectations and limits for their children. While there are some generic recommendations that make sense for children within specific age groups (see the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines, last updated in 2016), it is critical to consider a child’s level of readiness for engaging with digital devices and media. For example, some children may have reached a level of responsibility and maturity to safely manage use of a smartphone by age 13 (note, some of the biggest names in technology did not allow their children to have internet-connected devices until they were 14), while others may not achieve this until much later in their teen years. Parents need to take into account their child’s developmental level, responsibility level, and general behavior and functioning when deciding the age at which access to things like smartphones and social media is appropriate. 

It is also important for parents to take a look at themselves. I ask parents to consider their own level of willingness to dedicate time to monitoring what their children are doing online and readiness to communicate with their children about device use, safe behaviors online, and more. It is not appropriate to simply hand children devices and expect them to know how to navigate the world of digital media. Parental control software helps a lot, and I recommend parents use them, but they do not replace the need to still be on top of what the activity data is telling you. They can tell you what topics to talk about, but it is still up to you take the time to make those conversations happen.

Today’s children are digital natives and they may understand technology, but they do not understand the risks from cyberbullies, cyber-predators, or groomers. In many cases they often don’t really understand that what they put on the internet will be there forever and can hurt their chances of getting into their college of choice or obtaining a job in the future, or make them feel awful about some harm they may have caused someone else. Having access to the whole world is a big deal. Children of all ages need guidance and ongoing support to learn how to process their digital experiences and to develop safe and healthy media habits.

It is not appropriate to simply hand children devices and expect them to know how to navigate the world of digital media.

With that in mind, here are my recommendations for various age groups based on current research and my own clinical experience: 

All ages

  • Electronic devices should not be used in the bedroom at night. Not only does the light from devices make it harder to fall asleep, children lose out on valuable sleep time. 
  • Mealtimes should be device-free. Research shows that this allows for healthier eating, communication, and relationships for the entire family.
  • Take a break from screens after every 30-60 minutes of use to support eye health, vision, and brain function.

Birth to 4 years old

  • Very limited exposure to digital devices and media, and primarily with adult engagement and support.
  • Children under the age of 18 months should not use digital media at all except for video chatting with family members (AAP recommendation). They also recommend that children ages 18-24 months not be left alone to independently view or engage in screen time activities, as parent/caregiver involvement is critical for healthy brain development. Children between 2 and 4 years of age should spend no more than 1 hour per day on screen time.
  • Parents and caregivers need to ensure that young children are consuming only high quality programming appropriate for their developing brains. Use of electronic or interactive books can be appropriate in limited amounts when a parent/caregiver is present and reading with them. And beware that some programming designed for children has been proven to offer no good or even be harmful. Remember Baby Einstein

5-8 years old

  • Spend no more than 2 hours per day on screen time outside of school. Parents should prioritize activities such as play, movement, and family time ahead of time spent on devices.
  • A mix of independent use and use with parents/caregivers is most appropriate. 
  • High quality programming and primarily educational in nature.
  • Social media access is not appropriate for children in this age group.
  • Smartphones are not appropriate for children in this age group. 

9-11 years old

  • Prioritize non-device focused activities over screen time. This means setting an expectation that things like physical activity, chores, hobbies, social involvement, homework, etc. are completed before engaging in screen time activities. While 2 hours per day has long been considered a general guideline, this may or may not be appropriate for all children. It is typically more beneficial to focus on children spending ample time on other life activities first, and then using extra time to engage in the use of digital devices and media. 
  • Social media access is not appropriate for children in this age group.
  • Smartphones are not appropriate for children in this age group. If there is a safety need for a child to have access to a phone, then a simple flip phone capable of making calls is appropriate.

12-14 years old

  • Continue to prioritize non-device activities, with screen time as an option once other more important activities and responsibilities are complete.
  • Depending on the child, it may be appropriate to consider smartphone access with strict limits for children in this age group. Determining child and parent readiness to safely and responsibly manage this is crucial, and there are several questions that can help parents determine this:
    ○ Is your child prone to losing things? Do they manage belongings appropriately?
    ○ Does your child generally follow the rules and expectations you set? Are they often disrespectful or non-compliant with rules and expectations?
    ○ Is your child trustworthy?
    ○ Does your child manage things like homework, chores, and other tasks/responsibilities appropriately?
    ○ Has your child exhibited unsafe or inappropriate behavior related to electronics or digital media at home, school, or other people’s homes?
    ○ Are you willing to set and consistently enforce expectations and consequences for device-related behavior?
    ○ Is your child willing to sign a contract/agreement detailing expectations for using devices and digital media?
    ○ Are you willing to utilize parental control features, regularly monitor your child’s use of devices and digital media, and engage your child in conversations about what they are seeing and who they are communicating with?
  • Very limited social media access (many social media sites have age restrictions older than this) and there should be significant adult monitoring and oversight to teach healthy and appropriate online communication and behavior skills.

15-17 years old

  • Continue to prioritize non-device activities, with screen time as an option once other more important activities and responsibilities are complete.
  • Smartphone access for teens in this age group is appropriate as long as the child shows the required level of responsibility and readiness. See questions above for help in determining this.
  • Access to social media with parental monitoring is generally appropriate for these ages, as we want to allow responsible teens more freedom within healthy limits. Parents need to play an active role in teaching and enforcing safe and appropriate online behavior. Consistent communication with children at this age about what they are seeing online, who they are communicating with, and what they are experiencing is important to support their health and safety.
  • Parents need to frequently discuss and enforce safe behaviors related to the use of devices while driving for teens in this age group who have a driver’s permit or license.

Electronic devices and online media are important and necessary parts in the lives of today’s children and teens, but they need our help to point out the dangers and set limits. Setting appropriate limits and expectations, and engaging in ongoing monitoring and communication, allows children to develop the safe and healthy device habits they need to build their digital resilience and navigate in our increasingly digital world. 

Dr. Nicole Beurkens

Nicole Beurkens, PhD, is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Board Certified Nutritionist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of children with serious developmental and mental health conditions. She has successfully treated over 1,000 children and families during her 20 years in practice using nutrition, lifestyle, and mental health techniques.

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