Parenting can sometimes feel like a never-ending multiple-choice test. Breast or bottle feed? Cry it out or co-sleep? The Montessori Method or standard curriculum? The decisions are endless, and because no two families are the same, it’s difficult to determine which option is the right option — the same goes for today’s tech-based parenting dilemmas.

One of the most pressing questions parents have revolves around screen time. There’s plenty of doom-and-gloom news about how kids interact with tech (and its correlation to mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety). But this often doesn’t align with the positive outcomes parents and kids have enjoyed from educational and creative digital content. So the question remains: how much is too much? We’ll let the research do the talking.

Tech exposure for pre-toddler

Age 0–2

When it comes to the pre-toddler set, it’s tummy time, not tech time. Most pediatric associations are united in their recommendations that parents avoid screen time for babies. Recently, however, the debate was reopened because the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised its stance on the topic: they’ve claimed that a little Skype or FaceTime activity is okay for 18- to 24-month-olds. The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS), on the other hand, held firm on its zero-tech stance for children under two.

It’s too much when: Babies and young toddlers are regularly exposed to tech, be it TV or mobile device.

Age 2–5

So, how should tech be introduced once it’s allowed? The Canadian Paediatric Society has a lot to say on the topic. When it comes to TV, they recommend a maximum of two hours of “well-designed, age-appropriate programs with specific educational goals” (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a little less, capping out at one-and-a-half hours for kids between 18 months and five years). That said, the CPS also recognizes that introducing toddlers to technology can be valuable, stating “there is early evidence that interactive ‘learn-to-read’ apps and e-books can build early literacy by providing practice with letters, phonics, and word recognition.”

It’s important to note, however, that there are consequences of allowing young kids to exceed two hours of screen time daily. Though test results are mixed, links have been found between screen exposure (more than two hours for kids 12 months or younger, or more than seven hours for older children) and speech impediments, among other developmental problems. However, the CPS and AAP note that there are actions parents can take (like actively monitoring content and combining screen time with tactile playtime) to boost the quality of your kids’ time spent online.

It’s too much when: Young children are exposed to more than two hours of passive screen activity (e.g. watching YouTube videos).

Tech exposure for elementary school children

Age 6+

For elementary school children and young teens, there’s no hard-and-fast rule around screen exposure — and no time limit that pediatricians or child psychiatry experts agree on. Instead, institutions like the CPS, AAP, and Mayo Clinic suggest parents should take an engaged approach. Your kids’ moods, behaviors, and social interactions can be indicators of too much screen time; technology shouldn’t interfere with school, outdoor and social activity, or sleep.

On one side, there are many research papers that claim technological devices negatively affect kids’ “executive functions”, an umbrella term used to describe the process children use to control their behavior and emotions. But because the study of children’s mental health is so complex and multifaceted, research methods and conclusions are constantly evolving. There are also several reasons to let your kids use technology. The CPS points out, for example, that tech can democratize the learning process for children and provide a portal to advanced learning: “...among children whose families own a laptop or mobile device, barriers to accessing and using educational content have almost disappeared”.

It’s too much when: Technology impacts your kids’ mood, behavior, or ability to socialize with family and peers.

There’s plenty of research to back up how much screen time is too much for babies and toddlers. As kids get older, however, these “rules” become trickier to navigate, so regardless of age, parents should focus on the quality of their kids’ screen time rather than the quantity. Reading e-books and playing educational games, for example, are much different than mindlessly scrolling on social media. Keep in mind that guidance from the experts is just that — guidance. Use these benchmarks as a starting point and build on them as you figure out how best to monitor your kids’ tech usage in a way that’s safe and enjoyable for everyone.

Photo Salsa: shurkin_son / Shutterstock Inc., Zoia Kostina / Shutterstock Inc., Chinnapong / Shutterstock Inc.

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