Beyond the 2-hour screen rule: 10 tips for parenting in the digital age

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

(Follow me at @drClaire)

For years, the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) when it came to media and kids was pretty straightforward: limit the TV to 2 hours a day, and don’t let children under the age of 2 watch it. As the Internet emerged and new devices arrived, the recommendation was tweaked to 2 hours of “entertainment media,” with the recommendation that the under-2 crowd stay screen-free.

But these days, even that has gotten hard. Is doing a math game on an iPad entertainment? How do you do the 2-hour rule if your teen intermittently checks social media while doing online homework? What about texting — that’s media and screen-based, but a lot of it is conversations between friends, instead of tying up the home phone for hours, like teens used to do. And if you let your toddler watch a video on your phone to keep them quiet on a crowded bus (so that you don’t get the evil eye from everyone around you), is that terrible?

Our children are growing up in a digital age, and parenting needs to reflect that. The AAP understands this, and is working hard to understand the ongoing research about the effects of media on children, so as to give the best recommendations to parents. In the meantime, they have released Ten Tips for Parents in the Digital Age:

  1. Treat media as you would any other environment in your child’s life. You want to know what your children do at school and with friends — you should want to know what they do online, too. And just like you have rules about behavior at school and with friends, you should have rules about online life as well.
  2. Set limits and encourage playtime. The AAP recommends setting “reasonable limits” on media use, which will vary with the child and the situation. It’s also important that children get plenty of time away from media, using their brains and bodies in different ways and interacting with the three-dimensional world around them.
  3. Families who play together learn together. This is particularly important for younger children — if you are going to let them use media, do it with them so that they get the back-and-forth that is so crucial for early brain development. And instead of using media as a babysitter, use it as a way to have fun together.
  4. Be a good role model. If you are on your phone or laptop all the time, or turn on the TV as soon as you sit down on the couch, what kind of message are you sending?
  5. Know the value of face-to-face communication. Not only is it crucial for the developing brains of babies, it’s crucial for relationships and mental health. Media can sometimes help with this, like with video chats with far-flung relatives, but for the most part, the take-home is: everyone needs to put down the devices and talk to each other on a regular basis.
  6. Create tech-free zones. Sometimes technology can truly get in the way — of relationships (so the dinner table is a good place to make a tech-free zone) or sleep (this is becoming a big problem with teens — phones should be charged outside the bedroom). It’s also a safety issue: texting and driving (or walking down the street) can be fatal.
  7. Don’t use tech as an emotional pacifier. Yes, it can come in handy with the toddler on that crowded bus. But kids also need to learn to handle emotions — and boredom — without the help of a device. It’s an important life skill.
  8. Do your homework when it comes to apps for kids. They are absolutely not all created equal. A great resource is Common Sense Media, which has reviews on apps as well as all sorts of other media like movies and TV shows.
  9. It’s okay for your teen to be online. It really is where teens connect these days, and it’s not a good idea to keep them off. They do, however, need to learn to be good and responsible digital citizens: online time shouldn’t crowd out offline activities and relationships; they need to be kind; and they need to remember that nothing they do online is truly private — and everything they do is potentially permanent.
  10. Kids will make mistakes. Because that’s what kids do. They fall off bikes, they kick the ball into the other team’s goal, they break rules, they hurt feelings. They can make mistakes online, too. The AAP recommends trying to approach mistakes with empathy, and turning them into teachable moments. But if the “mistakes” continue, especially if you have concerns about bullying, sexting, or signs of depression, let your doctor know.

The AAP has lots of great resources to help families make healthy media decisions — as does the Center on Media and Child Health of Boston Children’s Hospital.

Related Information: Harvard Health Letter


  1. Nguyen

    Thanks Claire for sharing this great article. I’m wondering if I can share it on my blog . This will help a lot of parents, especially those who find it frustrating to parent in the digital age.

  2. sadina

    Very good article. This is kind of article every parents should read.

    Thank you

  3. Janis Hoffmann

    I would like to know why the American Academy of Pediatrics has given their approval to increase ‘screen time’ without warning parents of the health risks of microwave radiation emitting from this unregulated wireless technology?

    All wireless devices come with a hidden safety manual and disclaimer informing the consumer to follow the instructions to avoid injuries.

    Apple instructs its users: “Read all safety information below and operating instructions before using iPad to avoid injury.”

    “…to be sure that human exposure to RF energy does not exceed the FCC, IC, and European Union guidelines, always follow these instructions and precautions: Orient the device in portrait mode with the Home button at the bottom of the display, or in landscape mode with the cellular antenna (located under the black edge at the top of the device) away from your body or other objects”

    The user manual also recommends users (many children): “you can further limit your exposure by limiting the amount of time using iPad Wi-Fi+3G in wireless mode, since time is a factor in how much exposure a person receives, and by placing more distance between your body and iPad Wi-Fi + 3G, since exposure level drops off dramatically with distance.”

    Samsung 3G Laptop: “Usage precautions during 3G connection: Keep safe distance from pregnant woman’s stomach or from lower stomach of teenagers. Body work operation: Important safety information regarding radiofrequency radiation (RF) exposure. To ensure compliance with RF exposure guidelines the Notebook PC must be used with a minimum of 20.8 cm (8 Inches) antenna separation from the body.”

    Apple “iPhone’s SAR measurement may exceed the FCC exposure guidelines for body-worn operation if positioned less than 15 mm (5/8th inch) from the body. When using iPhone near your body for voice calls or for wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep iPhone at least 15 mm (5/8th inch) away from the body, and only use carrying cases, belt clips or holsters that do not have metal parts and that maintain at least 15 mm (5/8th inch) separation between iPhone and the body

    International scientists and experts continue to warn that prolonged exposure to low levels of pulsating microwave radio frequency radiation from wireless devices which include wi-fi, ipads, cell phones, and cordless phones can lead to serious health effects such as infertility and cancer, especially in children.

    In February 2015, Lloyds of London officially reiterated its policy to exclude any liability coverage for injuries, “Directly or indirectly arising out of, resulting from, or contributed to by electromagnetic fields, electromagnetic radiation, radio waves or noise.” (Exclusion 32) This would include microwave wireless radiation emitted from the commercial grade Wi-Fi transmitters and the multiple wireless devices.

    The Canadian Human Rights recognizes EHS as a disability and says “Given the seriousness of the adverse effects and the availability of alternative technologies, a precautionary approach is warranted.”

    School Boards across the country have decided for the parents without full disclosure or parental consent that it is now mandatory that all children will be exposed to microwave radiation that is emitting from wireless technology. Parents have been robbed of their RIGHT TO KNOW the health risks from accumulative and prolonged exposure in our classrooms.