Screen time for kids – what’s right, wrong and recommended?

by | Parent Guides

Jump to a section:
Screen time: a bad thing?
Official recommendations
The benefits & wider picture
Screen time: a redundant term?
Content & Context
Tips for parents

FACT: parenting is hard. Take the summer holidays for example, 6 weeks of being a constant source of entertainment for the little ones – it’s tiring, especially when paired with work and all of the other things life throws at us.

It’s times like this when the calling call from the big (or little!) screen is at its most tempting. Tablets and TVs have, we say cautiously, lent some parents a helping hand as a digital babysitter – and they will continue to do so.

With that being said, should we, parents, limit screen use? Or can screen time actually be beneficial to a child’s development? This article is here to try and shed some light on the matter.

Screen time for kids – a bad thing?

Image of man watching blank screen

OFCOM’s recent report on ‘Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes’, revealed that some children under 5 spend over 4 hours in front of a screen each day – with 3-4 year olds spending a daily average of 71 minutes online.

With such a large number of children spending an increasing amount of time in front of screens, there is a concern that prolonged exposure may negatively impact a child’s physical and emotional wellbeing:

  • A recent Public Health England briefing paper linked screen time to “lower levels of wellbeing”. It was noted that a combination of extended screen time and sedentary lifestyles takes “a toll on children… and increases their anxiety”.

What are the official recommendations?

Image of screen time limits set by tech parents

UK guidelines: what guidelines?

It’s at this point we would turn to some government guidelines for some assistance – well, no can do. Despite countless studies, opinion pieces and open letters on the matter, official guidelines do not exist, nor has acknowledgement been made.

This has caused some leading authors, educationalists, and child-development experts (40 in total) to pen a letter imploring for a set of guidelines to be commissioned – in their view, disparity warrants advice. You can read the letter here.

US recommendations

The American Academy of Paedriatics has issued guidelines, recommending that children:

  • Under 18 months avoid screen time, other than video-chatting;
  • 18 months to 2 years can watch or use high-quality programs or apps if adults watch or play with them;
  • Aged 2-5 years should have no more than one hour a day of screen time with adults watching or playing with them; and
  • Aged 6 years and older should have consistent limits on the time they spend on electronic media and the types of media they use.

Screen time: the benefits & wider picture

Image of kids on a tablet

So, at first glance, it appears excessive screen time could be harmful to a child’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

But, once we sieve through the ‘digital heroin’ rhetoric that seems to swamp this topic, it’s clear that there is far more to the debate than first meets the eye.

Lack of UK guidelines: too much hype, not enough evidence?

We referred to a letter penned by 40 signatories calling for the introduction of official screen time guidelines. On the face of it, their stance appears to be both reasonable and justified; supported by academic research.

But, soon after its release, a group of leading scientists criticised the letter as a thing of hype.

The scientists, each with expertise and experience in screen time, argue that the lack of official guidelines is simply down to one thing: insufficient evidence.

“… any simplistic approach to issues facing childhood health and wellbeing is inappropriate, and a focus on screen time is not evidence-based.”

Reports & studies on the benefits of screen time

  • A recent paper by The University of Oxford claims, “moderate amount of screen time may not be bad for teenagers’ well-being”. The paper found that teenagers can spend approximately 257 minutes online before doing themselves any harm.

Screen Time’ – a redundant term?

Image of iphone with content

Another important factor to consider in the screen time debate is the term ‘screen time’ itself. It is consistently used as a blanket expression covering TVs, computers and well, anything with a screen.

However, is it now unfair to do so?

With the increasing prevalence of tablets, ‘screens’ are no longer just a passive medium: they can encompass user interaction. Kids are now able to play on apps that require thought and creativity in order to proceed to further levels. They encounter ‘lean back’ media in the form of TV and ‘lean forward’ platforms such as the internet and touchscreen devices.

With this in mind, ‘screen time’ can clearly be construed to mean very different things: it could be sitting in front of a screen watching mind-numbing TV shows for an hour, or it could refer to employing thought, logic and reasoning via an educational app.

All in all, it seems two things are key in the screen time debate: content and context.


Image of educational apps

What comes out of a screen can vary significantly.

Is it a fighting game? Or one that develops problem-solving skills? Are kids watching clips of gifts being unwrapped? Or a TV programme that gets them thinking? And if content can differ so significantly, surely so too can its effects?

Apps are now challenging the notion that screen time is, and always will be, inherently harmful. How are they doing this? By combining immersive technology with stimulating, educational content.


Image of kids using tablet with parent

Screens can enhance relationships, just as much as they can foster isolation. Skyping a family member can enrich a child’s life; trawling through social media comments may do the very opposite.

Children react to different things in different ways: every child is unique. What one may find entertaining, another may find boring. One may be totally unaffected by something that affects another.

How can we quantify good vs bad screen time? Context has a big part to play, for it may have a much greater impact than sheer quantity alone.

Tips for parents: getting the most out of screen time

Set some rules

  • Establish some screen-free zones in the house;
  • Banish TV dinners and encourage conversation about each other’s day;
  • Set times for when kids can go on their tablets and indulge;
  • No screens before bed: the blue light emitted from tablets and TVs can affect the sleep-inducing hormone, Melatonin.

Family time

Set an evening aside each week for family night. Here’s some ideas of what to do:

Use ‘screen time’ apps

Apps exist that help parents limit the amount of screen time their kids are getting:

Unglue App logo
UnGlueSet time limits for different apps, games and channels. You can also set times of the day when kids can go on and indulge. Kids can monitor their own usage and the app works across all devices.

Screen Time app logo

Screen Time: Similar to UnGlue. Parents can set limits and monitor screen usage. The app also allows parents to create check lists and give rewards in the form of additional screen time.

Join in!

Become part of their online and gaming world. Play their favourite game and discover the web with them. Understand their online profile or better yet, help them build it!

So, how much screen time should children be allowed?

It depends on you.

There is no right or wrong answer: some parents may prohibit screen time in order to avoid adverse effects, others may impose no restrictions whatsoever: you know your child better than anyone.

Professor Mark Griffiths encourages parents to consider three things:

1. Does screen time affect your child’s schoolwork?
2. Does it affect their physical education?
3. Does it affect their peer development and interaction?

“Usually parents say that none of these things are affected so if that is the case, there is little to worry about when it comes to screen time.”


Screen time – a bad thing?

  • A recent Public Health England briefing paper linked screen time to “lower levels of wellbeing”.
  • Research undertaken by the University of Cambridge claims, “every hour you spend in front of a screen is linked to poorer exam results”.
  • A World Health Organisation report linked increasing screen time to physical inactivity and poor health in children.

What are the official recommendations?

  • There are currently no UK recommendations.
  • A letter penned by 40 educationalists and child-development experts has called for the release of official UK guidelines.
  • The American Academy of Paedriatics has released guidelines, recommending children aged 2-5 years have no more than one hour a day of screen time.

Screen time – benefits and the wider picture:

  • A group of leading scientists say that a lack of UK guidelines is due to insufficient evidence.
  • The term ‘screen time’ may be becoming a redundant term: it encompassing everything from watching TV shows to playing interactive, stimulating games on a tablet.
  • Content and context have a big part to play in the screen time debate, for they may have a far greater impact than sheer quantity alone.

Tips for parents: getting the most out of screen time:

  • Set some rules: establish some screen-free zones in the house, banish TV dinners, and/or set times for when kids can go on their screens and indulge.
  • Set an evening aside for family night – play board games, draw or do some face painting!
  • Join in. Understand your child’s online profile or better yet, help them build it!
  • Use screen time apps – UnGlue and Screen Time are popular apps for monitoring and limiting screen time use.

If you have any questions about any of the above, or want something added to the article, email us at and we’ll be in touch!

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