Want Less Stress? Limit Your Child’s Screen Time


According to important new research, when kids watch lots of television, parents’ stress levels increase.

The research is helpful because it seems counterintuitive.

In fact, many parents turn on the television specifically when they are stressed—just hoping for a little downtime or an opportunity to catch up on work or household chores. And there is no doubt that a child preoccupied with a screen in front of them brings short-term relief. I’ve been there.

But in the long-run, this decision may be adding to our stress levels more than we realize.

The research, conducted in 2020 at the University of Arizona, specifically explored the effects of children’s television watching habits on their parents’ stress levels.

And they discovered: “The more advertising children see, the more they ask for things and the more conflict is generated.” The effects of this conflict continue long after the shopping trip.

Additionally, the researchers are quick to point out that streaming services have not changed the equation.

“Commercial content is there for a reason: to elicit purchasing behavior… In general, more television exposure means more exposure to commercialized content. Even if I’m streaming, if I I’m watching more of it, I’m likely seeing more integrated branding,” Matthew Lapierre, one of the researchers argues.

Given the rise in the amount of time children are watching screens, this research is important for parents to consider. Some studies indicate young children spend twice as much time in front of screens as they did twenty years ago!

The research in this study draws a direct line between television and consumeristic desires—which is absolutely true.

But I’d argue that increased television watching among kids (and adults) results in increased stress levels in more ways than one. Here’s a short list of some of the negative effects of television and screen time (beyond increased consumerism):

* Physical Health: Too much screen time results in a range of negative physical health outcomes: obesity, poor sleep, and vision problems (just to name a few).

* Mental Health: Screen time is associated with a range of negative mental health effects, including depression, anxiety, and decreased social skills.

* Academics: Children who spend too much time on screens are more likely to struggle academically.

* Family Bonding: When children spend too much time on screens, they miss out on important, life-giving family time and relationships.

* Social Connections: Screen time has also been proven to interfere with a child’s ability to develop social skills and form meaningful relationships with others. 

With all the data and what we know to be true (both by study and by personal observation), are there steps we can take to limit our child’s time in front of the television or screen? Absolutely.

7 Ideas to Limit Your Child’s Screen Time:

1. Set the Example. 

Sorry to start with the toughest one, but there is nowhere else to start.

Children will always gravitate toward the modeled behaviors of their parents. If they see you reading a book, they are more likely to read. And if they see you watching television, so will they.

2. Believe it is Possible.

It is possible to raise children—even today—without reliance upon a screen. Parents accomplished it in the past and they are accomplishing it today.

No doubt, screens are far more prevalent today than twenty years ago. Nobody was carrying them in their pocket back then. But just because they are more ubiquitous today doesn’t mean we have to rely on them.

It might be more difficult today, but it is not impossible.

3. Be the Parent. 

It is your job to encourage healthy behaviors and limit unhealthy ones—sometimes this means making unpopular decisions like limiting your children’s screen time.

Make these tough decisions for your children. And when possible, go the next step of explaining why you have made the decision—this will help them follow through and someday choose it for themselves.

4. Set Limited Viewing Times. 

Allowing no screen time at all is probably not reasonable. (Although, depending on the age, I still think it is possible.)

Instead, choose the appropriate television viewing levels for your kids and communicate them clearly.

It is much easier to limit their viewing habit if they understand that they can only watch one show in the morning and one show after school (as just an example). Or “one hour on weekdays and two hours on the weekend,” etc.

5. Establish “No TV” periods.

Over two-thirds (70%) of young people report watching TV during meals. That’s too bad. Some of the family’s richest conversations happen during meals—or in the car.

Value those times with your kids. Don’t let the TV steal them from you.

Set a culture in your home that screens are not present during dinner… or in the car… or on “Friday Family Game Night” or whatever period you choose for your family.

6. Find a mantra. 

A mantra is a sound, word, or group of words that are considered capable of creating transformation. While the words may not be magic in themselves, the consistent use of them can be.

Every parent should have them and use them effectively. My “too-much television” mantra goes like this, “There’s been too much screen time in this family.”

And every time my kids hear me say it, they know what it means… they know the TV is getting turned off and we are about to spend some quality time together doing something else.

7.  Get Creative.

Find new and exciting ways to keep your child entertained that doesn’t involve screens. This might include playing board games, doing arts and crafts, heading out to a local park, or simply going on a family walk around the neighborhood.

It’s tempting to rely on screen time as a way to keep your child entertained or remove a little bit of stress from your day, but apparently that decision is having the opposite effect.

And as a general rule, it’s never wise to trade short-term benefits for a heavier burden in the future.

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