How to Ensure Your Family has a Balanced Screen Time Diet

we need to start thinking about screen time as a diet

I have the most love-hate relationship with technology. I wouldn’t be able to survive a day without all the ways it makes my life so much easier, and I hate how hard it is for me to unplug from it. But research shows us that we MUST unplug, especially for the sake of our children, just as much as we must get adequate sleep, eat a healthy diet, invest in healthy relationships, and take good care of our mental health.

Proper use of screens allow us to be connected to others, relieve our stress, gain valuable information resources, and find an online spaces that encourage creative expressions. But we need to start thinking about screen time as a diet. Think about the foods you should ideally have in your fridge and pantry, 80% nutrient dense foods and 20% of unhealthy/processed foods.

  • Just as we harm our bodies if we frequently eat a whole pint of ice cream or a frappuccino a day, we can harm ourselves by connecting to violent or highly sexualized contents on our screens.

  • Just like unhealthy foods are very addicting, screens are also very addicting.

Excessive screen time is associated with:

  • Permanent damage to children’s still-developing brains, leading to delayed cognitive development, such as reduced abilities in

  • Recognizing emotions and having empathy for others

  • Social skills

  • Focus and attention

  • Emotion regulation

  • Sensing other people’s attitudes and communicating with them

  • Problem solving and planning

  • Language development

  • The immediate sense of reward children and adults get by being able to cause an immediate effect on an electronic device with a quick swipe or touch of a finger releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, the main component in our reward system that’s linked with pleasure. Dopamine hits in the brain can feel addictive, and when children and adults get used to an immediate stimuli response, they learn to prefer smartphone-style interaction over real-world connection.This pattern imitates, in a less intense way, the dangerous cycle seen in patients with drug and alcohol addictions.
  • Neuro-diverse children, such as those with ADHD or ASD, are at greater risk for being “addicted” to electronic devices and their parents report having much harder time limiting their screen time.

  • In families, it leads to less meaningful conversations and less communication, which lead to disconnect and detachment. TV and interactive-screen media distract parents and impair parent-infant interaction.
  • Teens who spend an excessive amount of time on social media have lower sense of self, are at a higher rate for mental health concerns, and at a higher risk for sexting.

  • Loss of opportunities for adults to teach children social skills and social rules, such as making eye contact and saying hi, waiting your turn, being polite, kind, and helpful, or being patient, as they quickly revert to using screens to keep their children busy.

  • Poorer physical outcomes, such as sleep quality via the blue light of the screens, risk for obesity, less physical activity, and harmful pressure on the eyes.

  • Cyberbullying.

  • Negative performance at school.

The research evidence showing the detrimental effects of saturated and long-term effects of screen time on humans is so strong that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently came out with the following recommendations:
  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.

  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.

  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.

  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.

  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

On average, the amount of hours PER DAY American individuals
are connected to screen medias is 10.5 for adults, 6 for tweens,
4.5 for 8-12-year-olds, and 2.5 for children up to age 8.

When you consider how much time we spend at work, commuting, sleeping, eating, and taking care of daily chores, it looks like whatever time is left is spent on screens. But together, we can start making choices to make our screen time diets healthier for ourselves, our children, and our families.

10 Ways To Improve Your Screen Time Diet

  1. Reduce the number of devices you own, such as your Apple Watch, Kindle, or iPad.
  2. Place your phone in a different room as where you’ll be in your house.
  3. Designate meal time, homework time, and an hour before bedtime as “screen-free” time zones in your family.
  4. Make sure no electronic devices are used in bed.
  5. Verbalize what you are using your phone for when using it in front of your children, (e.g., “Let’s see if mom texted me back” or “I’m going to check the weather for tomorrow”).
  6. Remove TVs from bedrooms.
  7. Downgrade your cable subscription to basic channels.
  8. Place parental monitors on all devices. Anya Kamenetz, the author of The Art of Screen Time, talks about the internet as a “place”. She states that we wouldn’t allow our children to just get up and go anywhere they want, so why would we allow them to have no limits on what they browse on the internet?
  9. Create a Personalized Family Media Use Plan, so you can can be aware of when you are using media to achieve your purpose.
  10. Maintain a very open dialogue with children as early as age 10 about sexting and online porn.

Below are some additional resources. Hope you find them helpful!


It’s a great idea to frequently check in with yourself and your family and assess the quantity and and quality of the screen time that happens in your home. Summer time is around the corner, and it’s a great idea to start setting some limits for children (and adults) around screen time before things start to really get out of control with all the extra free time. Look out for my upcoming blog post on what is considered too much screen time, why excessive screen time is so harmful for children and families, and how to make sure your screen diet is healthy and balanced.

Hasti Raveau is a child and family psychologist and the founder and owner of Mala Child and Family Institute. Much of her work is focused on helping children improve their emotional well-being, supporting parents on their parenting journeys, and empowering families so they can repair, grow, and thrive.

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