It’s been a long pandemic. In the absence of outside activities, you’ve been leaning a little too much on the boob tube. Now you’re wondering- have I overdone it? We’ve all heard that too much TV is bad for kids, but how much TV is too much?
And what about adults- can we binge as much as we want? In my home, my husband jokingly refers to the television as the “third parent.” We have a three-year-old daughter who loves to watch PBS shows. We all look forward to 5 pm when she gets an hour of television, and we get a chance to cook dinner uninterrupted. If left to her own devices, though, my daughter would watch TV every minute of every day.
There’s no age for unlimited TV consumption. Experts recommend no more than 1-2 hours of TV per day, depending on your age.
The following are a few of the risks of too much TV for children (AAP, 2016b):
- Obesity– Studies show that teens who watch excessive amounts of television are at a much higher risk of becoming obese.
- Trouble sleeping– Staring at screens, especially close to bedtime, can lead to a lack of quality sleep.
- Internet addictions (i.e., gaming)- Excessive screen time can lead to maladaptive habits, like video game addiction (“internet gaming disorder”).
- Academic problems– Too much time watching TV can interfere with the time needed for schoolwork.
- Increased risky behaviors– “Exposure of teens through media to alcohol, tobacco use, or sexual behaviors is associated with earlier initiation of these behaviors (AAP, 2016b).
- How Much TV is Too Much for a Baby
- How Much TV is Too Much for a 2 to 5-Year-Old
- How Much TV is Too Much for an Elementary Age Child
- How Much TV is Too Much for a Middle & High Schooler
- TV Limits for All Minors
- How Much TV is Too Much for an Adult
- TV In the Time of Coronavirus
- How to Roll Back TV Use
How Much TV is Too Much for a Baby
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that babies under 18 months watch no TV at all (AACAP, 2020). Under the age of 18 months, babies aren’t able to make the connection between what they see on the screen and what they see in real life.
According to one doctor, “It takes around 18 months for a baby’s brain to develop to the point where the symbols on a screen come to represent their equivalents in the real world” (AAP, 2016c).
What’s the harm in letting your babies watch television? The American Academy of Pediatrics puts it in stark terms: “Good evidence suggests that screen viewing before age 18 months has lasting negative effects on children’s language development, reading skills, and short term memory. It also contributes to problems with sleep and attention” (2016c).
Luckily, babies under 18 months don’t need a TV to stay occupied. At that age, my kids were mesmerized by cars driving past the house and watching me make dinner.
When they were able to play with toys, a few (safe) kitchen tools kept them occupied while I made dinner. Experiment with ways to keep your babies entertained without turning on the television.
From 18-24 months, babies should only be exposed to screens when video chatting. Video chatting requires interaction and stimulates the brain in ways that passive TV watching can’t offer. That’s good news for grandparents who live far away!
How Much TV is Too Much for a 2 to 5-Year-Old
You can begin introducing your child to television after their second birthday. Keep in mind, though, that a little bit goes a long way. The AAP says that kids this age should not watch more than one hour of television a day- and they specify that it should be “high-quality programming” (AAP, 2016d).
Toddlers are constantly learning and growing. Their brains up until age three make over a million neural connections per second (ZERO TO THREE, n.d.). Parents should take advantage of this time of growth and expose their toddlers to many types of learning. Playing with toys, outside, and with friends and family will allow little ones to stretch their brains.
Another way to increase brain development, even while allowing screen time, is to watch along with your child. Ask your kid questions about what they see on TV- what is this character doing? What color is her shirt? Helping your child talk about what they are viewing will allow them to utilize different parts of their brain than typically used when watching TV.
How Much TV is Too Much for an Elementary Age Child
For children over the age of 6, doctors recommend that families figure out their limits and stick with them- so long as they keep it under 2 hours a day.
Kids need physical activity, time with friends and family, and time for school and school work. If screen time is taking the place of any of these essential activities (or sleep!), you’re probably letting them watch too much.
In the age of COVID and online schooling, professionals have clarified that online education and homework do not count towards “screentime” limits. Other online activities, like video games or social media, should be considered when calculating screen time hours.
How Much TV is Too Much for a Middle & High Schooler
Once again, under two hours is the goal for all kids over the age of six. When kids hit middle school, though, screen time limits tend to get more complicated.
Apps like Instagram, TikTok, and Youtube are easily accessible by young teens on their smartphones. The AAP considers these activities to count towards your kids’ screen-time totals.
I worked in a middle school and high school as a social worker. I was shocked by the access some of the youngest students had to the internet, completely unsupervised by their parents. These were kids from high functioning, high performing families whose parents were not monitoring the media their kids were consuming. Almost every kid had access to media that they knew their parents wouldn’t want them watching.
One 13-year-old student came to me because he felt he wasn’t getting enough sleep. When I asked a few questions, I discovered that he watched horror movies in his room every night before going to bed. His parents would say goodnight, and he would turn on Netflix. No wonder he was having trouble sleeping!
As your kids grow, they are going to become more independent and make their own media choices. That’s why it’s essential to stay tuned in to their media consumption. Ask questions, keep an eye on what apps are on their phones, and keep the lines of communication open.
TV Limits for All Minors
Keeping your child’s relationship with technology healthy takes more than just counting how many minutes they spend staring at screens. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers additional advice, including ensuring that meals are screen-free and designating screen-free areas of your home (AAP, 2016). They also recommend having frequent, honest conversations with your children about their use of media and questions they might have about what they see.
Need more ideas on how to help your kid stay healthy? There are tons of resources online. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers an online, interactive planning tool for family screen use. The AACAP suggests banning screen exposure 60 minutes before bedtime to help your child sleep, and being mindful of how your own media consumption impacts your kids (2020).
No matter how old your child is, you should be involved in their media consumption. For young kids, keep a careful eye on what they’re watching. Limit their options to high-quality or educational content- check out the PBS Kids app for ideas. Middle school students like to think they’re adults, but they need some limits to keep their viewing habits age-appropriate. As your kids get older and gain more independence in their media choices, opt to watch their shows with them. You can use it as an opportunity to discuss challenging topics that might show up.
How Much TV is Too Much for an Adult
You shouldn’t consider yourself exempt from screen time limits. Not only are you a role model for your kids, but there are also consequences for excessive television consumption for adults. According to Harvard Health Publishing (2019), adults who watch four or more hours of television a day have a 49% increased risk of heart attack or stroke. This increased risk holds steady regardless of whether the adults have very active or sedentary jobs.
Thanks to the pandemic, almost all parents have been leaning on screens more than usual- and that’s okay. According to the Child Mind Institute, it’s okay to cut yourself some slack when it comes to television when you’re socially distanced (Sheldon-Dean, 2021). Try to have reasonable limits, make sure everyone in your family is getting what they need, and show yourself some grace.
How to Roll Back TV Use
As the pandemic comes to an end, everyone will need to get back to life as usual. If you think you watch too much TV, or your children do, it’s not too late. Here are some tips to help you create healthier habits.
You don’t have to go cold turkey on screens. Start by initiating small limits- for example, tell your kids that they can’t turn on the television until 4 pm, only after they finish all their homework. Spend a whole week or two cementing that rule before you move onto the next one.
Help your kids think of hobbies they’d like to pursue. As you reduce the amount of time spent in front of the TV, make sure they have options for other exciting activities. Perhaps they might like to go out for the soccer team or get into painting. The same goes for you! Always wanted to play the piano? Now’s the time.
Quality over Quantity
If you’re only watching an hour of television a day, prioritize things that improve your quality of life. Instead of binging whatever Youtube says you should watch, try picking a movie as a family to watch together.
Talk about it
If your kids are older, be honest about your motivations for reducing screen time. High school students are more than capable of having these conversations with their parents. Many online resources explain the negative impacts of too much media. Encourage your kids to look into what the science says, and ask them to help you develop reasonable limits for your family.
The habits your children are developing now will likely follow them into their adult years. That’s why it’s essential to help them grow in their ability to stay active and entertain themselves without television. It’s okay for your kids to be bored. Often, boredom will lead them to discover new activities or use their imaginations. If we can learn to be comfortable with our kids’ boredom, eventually they will learn, too.
No matter how old you are, limiting your TV consumption to less than two hours a day is best for your health and well-being. Remember that any screen time- not just television screens- carries the same consequences as binging Netflix. If you find that the TV in your home is constantly on, take the time to reassess what you want and set new limits. After all, our best memories happen away from the screen.
AACAP. (2020, February). Screen time and children. Retrieved April 10, 2021, from https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016). How to Make a Family Media Use Plan. HealthyChildren.Org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/How-to-Make-a-Family-Media-Use-Plan.aspx
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016b, October 7). Constantly Connected: Adverse Effects of Media on Children & Teens. HealthyChildren.Org. https://healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Adverse-Effects-of-Television-Commercials.aspx
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016c, October 21). Why to Avoid TV for Infants & Toddlers. HealthyChildren.Org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Why-to-Avoid-TV-Before-Age-2.aspx
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016d, November 1). Where We Stand: Screen Time. HealthyChildren.Org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Where-We-Stand-TV-Viewing-Time.aspx
Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, October). The trouble with watching too much TV. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-trouble-with-watching-too-much-tv
Sheldon-Dean, H. (2021, February 12). Screen Time During the Coronavirus Crisis. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/screen-time-during-the-coronavirus-crisis/
ZERO TO THREE. (n.d.). Brain Development. Retrieved April 10, 2021, from https://www.zerotothree.org/espanol/brain-development
Megan Cornish is a licensed clinical social worker in Washington State. She has worked in the field for 10 years after receiving her MSW from the University of Washington. She has experience working with children, teenagers, and families.