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Screen time: How to help your child set healthy limits


Although screen time​ can be very enjoyable for you and your child, too much screen time can lead to negative behaviours and emotions. For this reason, it is important to monitor your child’s screen time and encourage your child to balance it with screen-free activities.

Ninety percent of children today are exposed to screen-based activities before the age of two. These early years are extremely important for a child’s proper growth and development, so it is important to minimize excessive screen time.

Habits formed during the early years may carry into adulthood. Children rely on you to teach them healthy screen time habits when they are young so that they can maintain those habits as they become more independent. They also rely on you to create an environment where they can go online safely.

How to manage your child’s screen time

You can help your child manage their screen time by:

  • introducing and enforcing gradual changes to screen time limits
  • talking to your child about technology
  • helping your child change their screen time habits
  • creating an environment that supports reduced screen time.

Introduce screen time rules

If screen time makes up a large part of your child’s routine, you can start by setting rules that focus on gradual changes.

  • Start decreasing screen time in small steps until it reaches the recommended limits for your child’s age group. If your child has a lot more than two hours of screen time a day, for example, try decreasing it by 30 minutes a day for a week at a time and progress slowly towards meeting the recommended times for their age.
  • Have a ‘no television or screens’ rule before bedtime. Your child will get a better night’s sleep if they stop using screens at least 90 minutes before bedtime.
  • Children tend to have most recreational screen time right after school and before bedtime. Encourage active play during these times instead.
  • Set limits on time spent playing “active” video games. They are advertised as a good way to be active, but children and teens quickly learn how to play using minimal gestures (for example using wrist movement only). This greatly reduces the amount of energy they use.

Talk to your child about technology

Talking to your child about technology, in particular the negatives and positives of screen time, will help them understand the importance of having interests that go beyond the screen.

The negatives of screen time

  • Sometimes your child may come across something on a screen that is not age appropriate. Encourage your child to turn off the screen and alert you if something has scared them or does not feel right.
  • Hanging out with friends and family face to face helps us experience positive emotions and feel closer to others. Social media and technology can make children and teens feel lonelier because it eliminates the need to call a friend or meet up with someone in person. It also increases the risk of being contacted by an online predator. A predator will usually pretend to be someone your child’s age and try to make friends with your child.
  • Staring passively at a screen usually does not require children to use their imagination. A healthy imagination is important for children and teens to generate ideas, solve problems and entertain themselves without technology.
  • Without suitable limits, screen time can become addictive, leaving little energy or motivation for other activities.

The positives of screen time

  • Technology can support your child’s learning and education by giving them access to information and educational tools.
  • A certain amount of screen time can help children and teens stay connected with important people in their life who may be far away.
  • In moderation, screen time can also help create fun family memories, such as enjoying a movie or video game together.

When teaching your child about screen time, make sure your child understands that it is a privilege. They should also understand the importance of balancing technology with other activities. Technology can open many doors for your child, but it can sometimes feel overwhelming. Ask your child how they feel about the screens in their life.

Change your child’s screen time habits

Below are some tips on changing your child’s screen time behaviour.

  • Create a screen time budget that your child must follow. For example, only allow one hour of screen time a night or only charge the family tablet once every couple of days.
  • Be a role model by limiting your own screen time each day.
  • Encourage your child to move while enjoying some screen time (for instance stretching during a commercial break).
  • Instead of playing video games as a family, try new active games.
  • Think about some fun activities that do not involve a screen. Going for a walk, joining a sports team, drawing, painting or playing a board game are just a few examples of screen-free activities.

Create a supportive environment

Even with the best information and rules, it can be hard for a child to change their screen time habits if their environment does not support it. The following tips can help you change your child’s environment to reduce their daily screen time.

  • Keep TVs and computers out of bedrooms.
  • Choose an hour or two during the day that is ”screen free”. You can use this time to cook dinner with your child, play a board game or spend time outside.
  • If you can, create a screen-free room in your home where your child can go to relax and play.
  • Turn off the television while you are eating dinner.
  • Make sure your child has access to physical activities in a safe environment, whether at school, at your local recreation centre or with friends.
  • Make it easy for your child to choose healthy snacks such as vegetables, fruit or a yogurt if they like to eat while enjoying screen time. 

How to keep your child safe online

Screens will always be part of your child’s life, whether they are doing some homework or research, relaxing with a game or chatting to their friends. That said, there are some simple steps you can take to keep them as safe as possible online.

  • If your child uses a shared computer or other device, set them up with their own child account and use parental controls to filter the content they can see online.
  • Remind your child that someone they meet online may not be who they say they are.
  • Teach your child not to answer an online friend’s questions about themselves, where they live or their family, no matter how friendly they seem.

Key points

  • It is important to teach your child healthy habits and limits regarding screen time so that they can maintain them when they become more independent.
  • You can help your child set healthy screen time limits by gradually changing their routine, talking to them about technology, helping them change their screen time habits and creating a supportive environment.
  • Make sure your child understands the importance of balancing technology with other activities, such as playing, socializing with others or using their imagination.
  • Keep your child safe online by setting up a child account with parental controls and warning them not to share personal information with online friends.

Further information

For more tips on maintaining your child's mental health, please see the following pages:

Phy​sical activity: Guidelines for children and teens​

Physical activity: Benefits of exercise for health and wellbeing​

Sleep: Benefits and recommended amounts

Sleep tips: How to help your child get a good night's sleep

Sleep tips: How to help your teen get a good night's sleep

Screen time: Overview

Nutrition: How a balanced diet and healthy eating habits can support your child's mental health​​​

​Samantha Metler, MA
Suneeta Monga, MD, FRCPC