Screen Time – How Much Is Too Much? When Is It a Problem?

I have so many parents asking me about screen time these days and what is and isn’t okay, so I figured I’d share my thoughts with you based on a)research and b)feedback and comments from clients I’ve worked with.

Screen time relates to the time spent on a screen – this could be the television, smartphone, tablets, gaming consoles, computers…you get my drift. Back when I was in high school, the Nokia 5110 was all the rage and phones were used for talking and SMS. Even then, it was pretty hard to resist the urge to text your fellow mobile user. Then came along the smartphone in 2007. According to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership among U.S. teens rose from 37 percent in 2011 to 73 percent in 2015. By 2016, the average child in the U.S. got their first smartphone at the age of 10.  Yes, that’s right, TEN YEARS OLD!!! The problem isn’t the phone itself, or the age at which someone acquires a smartphone, rather, it’s everything that comes with it and the user’s ability to regulate how they use it.

When you give someone a smartphone, you are giving them the world at their fingertips. In addition to calls and sms, they have all of the internet available. They can connect with anyone, they have access to games (which, by the way, are designed to be addictive), access to social media, videos, basically EVERYTHING!  A child with a smartphone can look up current affairs and see things that emotionally and socially they are not equipped to deal with, they just haven’t got the maturity or life experience – that comes with time. Smartphones make it pretty much impossible for parents to really monitor what their kids have access too. Kids are smart with technology, they can get around firewalls and parental controls. Often, they are more tech-savvy than their parents.

Here are some other facts for you…. in 2009, about 50% of teens were on social media. This rose to 82% by 2015. Also, teens who spend more time on electronic devices have more suicide risk factors, and studies using longitudinal and experimental designs show that the causation primarily goes from social media to unhappiness rather than from unhappiness to social media use. Considering that the stats show that some of our teens are on their smartphones/devices for 4+ hours per day, that’s pretty alarming! (According to, 21% of teens are spending 12+ hours on screens on a typical weekday and half of all teens spend 6+ hours using a screen-based device on a typical weekday!) Increased screen time doesn’t just mean people are exposed to online bullying and inappropriate content, but it leaves less time for other things that are beneficial for mental health, such as sleep and seeing friends in person (and homework!)

BUT, here’s the thing, kids and teens need to know how to use these smart devices – technology will keep advancing and it’s important to know at least the basics. With so many jobs relying on technology, being tech-savvy is extremely helpful. So, where do we draw the line?

Some general recommendations:

  • Kids 2 to 5 years can be limited to less than 1 hour of screen time each day – this means they have time to play, explore, run around, be creative, learn, and sleep.
  • According to, 5-17 year olds should have less than two hours per day (this is purely social time and doesn’t include homework, which will increase their exposure to screens).
  • Parents need to not only monitor the time spent on smart devices, but also get clued in on the content. We need to teach kids and teens what is safe and unsafe communication and to understand that once they put something on the internet, it’s there forever, even if they delete it. It’s about being smarter with the technology.


How to know when screen time is becoming a problem

  • The person using the device is struggling socially in face to face situations and most of their interactions are online
  • The user is becoming isolated or withdrawn
  • When you try to get your kids off their screen, they become quite irritable, frustrated, argumentative or aggressive (sure they will be annoyed, that’s fine, but I’m referring to a reaction that does not seem proportionate to the situation)
  • They appearing anxious or irritable when away from the screen/device
  • Hygiene and sleep routines go out the window
  • Headaches, backaches (due to poor posture) and eye strain become a common occurrence
  • You notice a decline in academic or occupational performance

Like most things, MODERATION IS KEY. Technology and smart devices are not bad, if we use them wisely and teach the younger generation to do the same.

If you are concerned about your kids or teens and their screen-time usage, have an open conversation with them about how they are using the technology. If you need to limit their usage, do it (even if they hate you for it). As a parent, you need to protect your kids and make sure they are balancing their time. Kids need to socialise, study, have family time, engage in hobbies, and SLEEP (this is a HUGE issue, probably best to discuss in another blog) and they can’t if they spend all their time on screens.  

A note to parents of younger kids – If you need the occasional night to unwind and you pop your kid in front of the TV or tablet a little longer than usual so you can have a rest, that is fine! If you give your toddler the phone so they can watch Pepper Pig while you have a coffee with a friend, that is also totally fine. Your sanity is very important! Just don’t make a habit out of it and ensure your kids have time to do all the other non-screen related stuff J

The take home message – BALANCE, MODERATION, KNOWLEDGE – Get these things down-pat and you’ll set yourself and your kids up for success in our tech-loving society!




 About the author:

This blog was written by Laura Forlani, Director and Clinical Psychologist at Your Mind Matters.      

Laura has completed undergraduate and post graduate studies in psychology, most recently completing a Masters in Clinical Psychology at Swinburne University.She has experience helping children and adults overcome a wide variety of difficulties such as mood and anxiety disorders, and problems arising due to changes in personal circumstances (e.g. family breakdown or a change in career). Her approach to therapy involves education, collaboration, and evidence-based interventions such as cognitive-behaviour therapy, skills training, and relaxation strategies.