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How Much Screen Time Is Too Much? We Ask an Expert

Are you spending too much time in front of a screen? What about your kids? Are they surrounded by screens every day?

Screen time refers to all the time you or your kids spend in front of a screen. It includes working or studying on a laptop or tablet, watching TV, playing video games, or using a smartphone.

Too much screen time can take its toll on your eyes and health. But how much is too much and what can you do about it? Let’s start with some average numbers.

Average Screen Time by Age Groups

With so many devices around, it’s no wonder that kids, teens, and adults spend hours in front of screens every day. Here’s what the numbers say.

  • Average screen time for kids: According to MedlinePlus, American children spend in total 5-7 hours a day in front of a screen. Of this, they spend around 3 hours a day watching TV.
  • Average screen time for teens: Teens spend up to 9 hours in front of screens, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
  • Average screen time for adults: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, adults in the US spent around 10 hours and 39 minutes every day in front of screens, according to a Nielsen report. During the pandemic, adult screen time surged to over 19 hours a day.

Too Much Screen Time Symptoms

Too much screen time at any age comes with a wide range of symptoms including:

  • Attention problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Eye strain and dry eyes
  • Headaches
  • Pain in the back and neck
  • Behavioral problems in children such as angry outbursts
  • Impaired socializing skills
  • Reduced ability to make decisions
  • Anxiety
  • Addiction to social media
  • Delayed learning in young children
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions associated with a sedentary lifestyle
  • Depression

Can too much screen time make children and teens misbehave? A 2017 study involving parents who had a child between 3-17 years old associated higher levels of screen time with more sleep disturbances and linked the latter to youth behavioral problems.

hands of a boy holding a joystick

Recommended Screen Time by Age Groups

How much screen time is too much for young children? What about adolescents and adults? Several health organizations have proposed screen time guidelines.

Recommended Screen Time for Children Under 2 Years

Children under 2 should not be exposed to screens as these do not help with their development. Children this small need to be able to follow their parents’ gaze to identify words. Vision makes them curious, which in turn makes them move and explore the world. Screen time can limit this natural exploration and reduce the rate at which they learn.

Recommended Screen Time for Children Between 2-4 Years

For children between 2-4 years, the recommended screen time is less than an hour a day according to the World Health Organization. Leaving a small child in front of the TV is not a good idea!

Recommended Screen Time for Children Between 5-17 Years

For children over 5 and as old as 17, more than 1-2 hours of screen time a day may be harmful. A study published in 2018 found that more than 1 hour of screen time a day decreased psychological well-being among children and adolescents in this age group.

The researchers found that too much screen time lowered self-control, affected emotional stability, and decreased curiosity. It also made it harder for children and adolescents to complete tasks and make friends.

Even more worrying, adolescents who averaged 7 or more hours of screen time a day were twice more likely to have been diagnosed with depression than those who averaged only 1 hour. They were also more likely to have been diagnosed with anxiety and been treated by a mental health professional in the last 12 months.

The study noted that even a moderate daily screen time of 4 hours a day lowered psychological well-being. What’s more, a 2016 Korean study found that smartphone use in children significantly increased the risk of dry eye disease if the children did not also spend time outdoors.

Recommended Screen Time for Adults

For adults, limiting screen time outside of work as much as possible can help safeguard their physical and mental health. A 2017 US study found that adults who spend more than 6 hours a day using a computer and/or watching TV have a higher risk of suffering from moderate to severe depression.

Screen time also reduces the blink rate, increasing the risk for dry eye disease in adults. And since it encourages a sedentary lifestyle, it may lead to unwanted weight gain, an unhealthy diet, and associated health problems, including diabetes.

man with tired dry eyes buttoning his phone while lying in bed

Important: As an adult, try to limit your screen time to no more than 2 hours per day outside of work. What’s more, a 2018 study found that limiting social media time to 30 minutes a day can lead to a significant improvement in wellbeing.

How to Reduce Screen Time for You and Your Children

Today, when we are surrounded by screens, reducing screen time can be challenging. But a few simple steps can get you a long way.

Important: If you want to limit screen time for a child or teen, it’s important to discuss with them why this is necessary rather than simply impose restrictions on them. Think also of reward strategies and spending more time together with them doing fun activities to compensate.

  • Do not eat while using a computer or smartphone or watching TV. Insist that your child should do the same.
  • Decide what programs you watch ahead of time and don’t binge-watch others.
  • Remove TVs from the bedrooms in your house.
  • Activate your phone’s screen time management features. To limit screen time on iPhone, use the built-in Screen Time feature to see and limit how much time you spend in an app. Android has a similar feature called Digital Wellbeing & parental controls.
  • Have a list of activities you can do together with your kids instead of using a screen.
  • Limit gaming time on consoles or PCs using parental controls if necessary.
  • Monitor how much time you and your children spend in front of a screen and review the numbers regularly. Many devices have screen time apps built into them that make this easier.
  • Don’t leave the TV on in the background. Listen to the radio or a music playlist instead.

man holding remote control in his hand

The Bottom Line

Screens can connect us to others, help us learn, entertain us, and make work faster and easier. But too much screen time is bad for the mind and the body.

As a parent, it’s important to avoid allowing your infant any screen time and discuss with your older child or teen the value of limiting screen time.

Lastly, you shouldn’t forget yourself that screen time beyond work and study can be harmful. You want to limit it as much as possible and make sure it doesn’t interfere with your sleep.

Now that you know how much screen time is too much, taking a dry eye test can be a good idea. Too much screen time and dry eye disease go hand in hand. Finding that you have dry eye can motivate you to reduce unnecessary screen time.

Our quick and easy question-based online test won’t keep you for long in front of a screen. It takes only about 3 minutes.

Take the Dry Eye Test.