Screen Time and Mental Health Resource for Parents

Why Does Screen Time Effect Mental Health?

Screen time and Mental Health

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in November 2021 looking at a cohort of 12-13 year olds reveals that they spend an average of 7.7 hours a day on recreational screen time. In fact, the average 8-18 year old spends over 7 hours of recreational screen time per day. These estimates do NOT include time spent at school or doing homework. This is purely recreational time spent on entertainment apps, video games, TV and movies.

Teen happiness and confidence levels have been tracked for decades. Around 2011-2012, these levels dropped drastically. Not so coincidentally, these were the years when smart phones became widely available for teens. Results from these studies also suggest that the more time teens spend on screens, the more they report anxiety and depression. Why? Another way to frame this is: what is this screen time taking the place of that’s making teens unhappy?

Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, describes a Harvard University class focused on what makes people happy. Let’s think about how screens are effecting a few of the pillars of happiness:

  1. Sleep – It is well known that getting enough sleep at night can improve your mood. I usually ask students and their parents: has your phone ever prevented or interrupted your sleep? The answer is always yes! This is why an hour before bed, everyone should power down the screens. You also need a central charging location at night to prevent “night checking” of the screens, which interrupts sleep further.
  2. Being Active – Exercising is great for both our physical and mental health. If everyone is spending extra time on these screens, it can be taking the place of physical activity. For example, before this technology, kids typically physically got together during their downtime, often surrounding a physical activity. Now we can just sit and play video games and be entertained without moving! We need to make sure we have enough physical activity each day. According to the CDC, every teen should get at least 1 hour of hard, heart-pumping physical activity per day.
  3. Face to Face Interaction – We are social beings and when we spend time with each other it can improve our mood. Then problem with screens is that if there is an awkward pause, we often reach for our phones to fill in the gap and make us more comfortable. Have you gotten into an elevator lately? Everyone grabs their phone immediately. Go to any teen hangout — you will see a group of teens sitting together but everyone is on their own personal device. Does that count as face to face interaction? No. Instead, if you removed the phones, there may be the awkward pause… but then, someone would start talking!

How Much Time on Screens Is Ok?

We do have recognize that not all screen time is equal. You can learn great skills from these apps. You can learn how to code, build things, design, start businesses, learn languages, and more. That being said, I would look to use screens that would be productive or educational more than just consuming content to be entertained. Here are the general recreational screen time recommendations according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) by age group:

Toddlers to 2 Year olds

  • Less than 1 hour per day
  • Only use quality educational programs that you watch together
  • Although it can be tough, avoid the temptation of handing your phone to your toddler to stop them from fussing. This inhibits their ability to interact with their environment and the people around them. 

Ages 2-5

  • Limit to less than 1 hour per weekday and less than 3 hours per weekend day
  • Once again, try to limit media to educational, interactive programs you can watch or play together
  • If you want them to watch a screen, a larger device like a tablet or computer will cause less visual stress than a phone.

Ages 6-10

  • Limit to under 2 hours of recreational screen time per weekend day and less than 3 hours per weekend day.
  • At 6 years old you can start talking to your child about the importance of limiting screen time

Ages 11-17

  • At this age your child will be on screens for longer periods of time for school, but still limit the recreational use.
  • Limit to under 2 hours of recreational screen time per weekend day and less than 3 hours per weekend day.
  • Find non-screen activities they can do, especially ones that involve exercise.
  • Always discuss being good digital citizens, posting responsibly, and having a digital footprint they can be proud of.


  • As an adult you want to limit recreational screen time to 2-4 hours a day
  • Keep work-related screen time around 8 hours a day if you can
  • Take frequent screen breaks
  • Make time for physical activity
  • Set screen free times
  • Turn off screens an hour before bed
  • Avoid checking your work e-mail before bed!

Setting Screen Time Limits

  • Schedule dedicated screen-free time with your family
  • No screens during meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner)
  • Make a fun challenge — can they be screen free for a certain length of time? They can earn a prize at the end!
  • Create a central charging station at night where your child leaves their phone out of their room
  • Screens off at least 1 hour before bed
  • As a parent, if you need to have your mobile phone in your bedroom at night, move it to the charge away from your bed. Studies show if you have your phone within 4-5 feet of you it will affect your sleep pattern.

Reasons to Have a Basket Rule When Friends Come Over

When your child has friends come over one thing you can do is have their devices go into a basket in a central location. Why would you do this?

  1. When kids get together sometimes they do stupid things. You don’t want them taking pictures of these stupid things with your house in the background. You are liable.
  2. You can avoid unnecessary drama. Sometimes teens will be messaging other friends at a different party, or someone feels left out, etc. Removing the devices removes the drama.
  3. Your kids might tell you, “I’m bored.” I say, “Good!” Being bored stimulates creativity and imagination. We are so used to being entertained and stimulated all the time that we forget how to work through boredom. We need to teach our kids it’s okay to be bored and encourage them to use their imagination to do something productive.

Need Help Setting Limits?

There’s an app for that! Here are some of the best apps on the market today that can both monitor and set screen time limits.