Here’s Why Science Says You Need to Set Screen Time Limits


Don’t get me wrong, y’all. I’m not against devices or screen time – for our kids or ourselves. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m all for them. But I am a strong proponent for setting some screen time limits. Because when you don’t set reasonable boundaries, you’re gonna get walked all over, y’all. That’s parenting 101 right there! That and you’re going to lose hours (or more) of your life.

I’ve updated and republished my article here with permission; it was originally published as Here’s Why We Set Screen Time Limits In Our House.

Wait – why do we need to set screen time limits?

Did you know that screen time is the #1 cause of mom guilt? This is a big thing – and it’s not going away any time soon. So let’s take a look behind the curtain to see why that is.

Have you ever looked at the psychology behind how people design their apps or shows or whatever else it is they’re trying to get you to watch? Y’all, they’re designed to be addictive. They’re designed to trigger those dopamine and pleasure centers in our brain – so that we keep swiping to refresh the darn screen, waiting to see who’s responded to our latest comment!

In other words, we’re fighting something that’s 100% addictive. It’s an uphill battle!

And as a chocoholic, let me assure you: if I keep chocolate chip cookies in the house, I’m gonna eat them all. It’s the same with my phone – if it’s nearby, I’m probably gonna be checking my newsfeed or texting my sisters or watching some new hilarious video.

That’s why we need limits – because we’re all susceptible to addiction – and this one targets so many of us.

Okay, but a timer? Really? YES. Or at least, I have to use one.

Thankfully, the American Academy of Pediatrics realized that their crazy-restrictive rule of “NO MORE THAN 2 HOURS OF SCREEN TIME, EVER!!” was outdated and unrealistic. Since then, the AAP has added a “helpful” family media planner on their website. Yeah, it’s still not very helpful, but it is kind of fun to play with for like an hour. If you’ve got some time to burn, anyway.

In any case, to know if you need a timer, ask yourself:

  • Are you gonna be able to get off your phone or laptop when you’re done with that one quick thing you need to do?
  • Or are you gonna hop on Facebook for “just a quick sec” before realizing 1. that’s not possible and 2. how in the world have six hours just passed?

It’ll depend on your self-control and your situation. And that’s okay. For me, well… let’s just say that I have to use a timer.

Before we had kids, I played video games with my husband. It was a great way to spend time together, and we had fun. Looking back at all of those hours we spend gaming, though, sometimes I wish we’d tackled a few more projects. Hindsight is 20/20, though, right?

With 4 kids, though, I don’t have much time for video games anymore – but I can easily lose hours working on my blog or writing. Thankfully, I’m a stay-at-home mom who only writes because she likes it – but my kids still hate having to wait for me to “just finish this one last thing” before I’ll help them.

How long should you set a timer for? Well, again it’s gonna depend on what you’re doing, how long it’s going to take, and if you’re going to get distracted (hint: you probably will – but take a deep breath, try a calming relaxation technique, and let’s keep going).

What about setting that timer for your kids? Do they even need a timer? Again, it depends. My kids get sucked into what they’re doing just like I do. My kids need timers. And I know that based on their behavior. More on that in a minute, though.

First, let’s talk more about what kinds of limits we need to set – and why science says so.

Here’s why science says we need limits on our screen time

Set and enforce screen limits in bedrooms and before bedtime to protect sleep

Light is an amazing thing, isn’t it? And the fact that there’s different kinds of light – all that affect us differently. Well, the blue lights on device screens sends our brains the same “STAY AWAKE!!” signals that sunlight does.

In other words, using our phones, tablets, or whatever else right before bedtime is making it harder for us all to sleep! So keep those devices out of bedrooms – and Harvard Medical says to turn them off 2-3 hours before bedtime.

And y’all, I’d hope this goes without saying to a fellow parent of children, but… sleep is sacred. PROTECT SLEEP!!!

Set limits so you know what your kids are watching and you can talk to them about it

I can only handle so many kid shows before my sanity begins to teeter into the “questionable” category. And, my sanity slips away even faster with certain shows (*cough* Caillou *cough*).

That being said, in a controversial study done using the show SpongeBob Squarepants, researchers showed 60 4-year-olds several 9-minute clips. Then, they asked them some questions – and compared the time and answers to the data they got from the exact same questions they’d asked before the clips.

The results? The 4-year-olds weren’t able to think as fast – or as well – after watching SpongeBob and other fast-paced shows. In other words, you should probably make sure your 4-year-old sticks to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or other age-appropriate shows.

My oldest is only 7, but he’s really big into Minecraft videos on YouTube right now. And yes, when he wants to watch those, I make sure of two things.

  1. First, I’m watching (ish) with him. Filters can’t catch everything. By watching with him, we can talk about it – and make sure that he’s learning good viewing habits.
  2. And second, we’ve got an agreed-upon time limit set. That way, I know that the end is in sight – and I can rejuvenate my sanity with some ice cream once the credits start rollin’.

There’s so much crazy stuff out there, y’all. Set limits – and know what your kids are watching. Then, talk about it. It’ll help your kids feel more valued – and may even present some cool teaching opportunities.

Okay, so remember how I mentioned that my kids’ behavior changes after too much screen time? Let’s address that addiction right now.

Screen time can be addicting – setting limits can help prevent behavioral problems

Remember how I said that I know my kids need limits based on their behavior? My kids are very easily addicted to screen time. And so am I.

That’s why you absolutely have to know the signs of screen addiction. That way, you’ll know if it’s becoming a problem beforehand – rather than when it’s too late. And when you catch it early, you can implement stronger restrictions to keep your family safe.

According to the University of Michigan:

The findings suggest that how children use the devices, not how much time they spend on them, is the strongest predictor of emotional or social problems connected with screen addiction. This held true after researchers controlled for screen time.

Then it lists warning signs to watch for:

  • How hard is it to stop using media?
  • Do other things still capture your interest?
  • Is screen time all you think of?
  • Does screen time cause problems for the family?
  • Do you experience withdrawal symptoms when not using a device?
  • Are you building up a tolerance to screen time – requiring more and more of it?
  • Is deception being used to get more screen time?
  • Do you use devices as a way to escape or feel better?

The scariest thing about that list, at least for me, isn’t that my kids do get pretty dang mean if I’ve let them play too long on their tablets. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t like how cranky they get after too much screen time!

What gets me is that all of us, myself included, meet some of the criteria for screen addiction. And to simplify the above list, there are two main questions to ask yourself to help you see if you have the same tendencies.

  • Does screen time cause problems for the family?
  • Do you use devices as a way to escape or feel better?

If you answered yes to either of those, then screen addiction could be an issue in your family. And, even worse, it could be affecting your family’s interactions.

Technoference” (or technology-based interruptions in parent-child interactions) is a fancy talk for “my child just asked me something 12 times but I didn’t hear him because I was on my phone and now I feel guilty – and he’s throwing a tantrum.” Can you say #momguilt?

So here’s why we set time limits – because people matter most

Y’all, it’s not just our kids who need screen time limits. It’s us, too. We’re all addicted to our devices.

And it’s affecting how we interact (or don’t) with our kids. It’s making us all more frustrated, annoyed, and angry. And that’s all sorts of wrong.

So here’s what we do: we set some limits on screen time for everyone in the family – myself included. We do device-free Sundays. During the week, we limit device time to an hour a day, although the kids can earn more time by doing extra chores.

That’s why we watch their behavior. And when we notice the addictive behaviors creeping in, we declare a few device-free days in a row.

It’s hard y’all. The screaming is, I’m pretty sure, causing me some permanent hearing loss. But when we keep our screen time under control, our family’s interactions become so much deeper, more intentional, and more personal.

And you know what? My kids secretly like device-free days, too. They’ll only ever admit it when it’s just the two of us, but hey. I’ll take it.

So go set some limits. Your whole family will thank you for it, trust me. And you will, too, as you kiss that awful #momguilt goodbye.

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Kimberly C. Starr

I'm a ginger who loves reading, eating, being a nurse, spending time with my family, and writing about it all. I believe humor is the best medicine, followed very closely by chocolate and tacos. To read more about me, click here.

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