Does Free Time = Screen Time for Your Kids?

Your first thought might be, what free time? Your kids are so scheduled between school and activities, there is very little free time, as least for you. But younger children have the free time even when you don’t. Think of all the time they have free while you are doing the heaving lifting of parenting: working, driving, cooking, cleaning, planning, shopping, or simply having an uninterrupted conversation (as rare as those can be).

Do you know what “free time” means to your kid? It is waiting for the bus, riding on the bus, riding in the car, during carpool, waiting for class to start, waiting for the food to come, waiting in any line at any time, the in-between times, lunch time, while on water breaks, while with friends, anytime the adults are distracted, and sometimes even when you are talking directly to them .. you get the picture. In today’s digital age, our kids are on in front of screens all the time. In fact, the average teenager checks their phone 167 times from the time he or she gets home until dinner.

Screen Time and Brain Damage

Managing screen time for kids has become one of the biggest parenting challenges of today. But get this – WHAT they are watching is not the whole picture. The hidden damage to your kid is the actual screen itself. Protecting your kid from violent images, pornography, online predators, bullying, dangerous tricks to try at home, and indoctrination with values you don’t support is literally only half the battle.

The other half is protecting their brains. Ever wonder why something that happened in childhood could still bother you 10, 20, or 50 years later? All your early experiences, good and bad, get hard-wired into the neural pathways of your brain. As your brain grows, it grows around those neural pathways. Your brain “grows up” around your early experiences. That’s why it’s so easy to learn as a child, but so hard to change as an adult. So what does that have to do with screens?

Screen overuse can harm and interrupt early brain development. Learning how to focus on one task without flashing pixels, to follow direction from a teacher that isn’t dancing in a Tic Toc video, and to connect to real-life humans without emojis, then they are missing out on important developmental milestones. Their brain, and their future, suffers.

The Effects

You don’t have to see into the future to find the suffering. The Yale Department of Psychiatry in collaboration with Columbia School of Nursing recently reported on their 2023 Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study. Researchers found that youth who spent the most time on their digital technology were more likely to exhibit higher levels of internalizing problems two years later. What are “internalized problems?” Depression, anxiety, social anxiety, low self-esteem, physical complaints, and others. Changes in these children’s brains was the link between screen time and mental health problems.

The evidence is simply becoming overwhelming. The National Institute of Health’s Preventive Medicine Report detailed the results of a study of over 40,000 youth ages 2-17. More than 1 hour of screen time a day (including TV, phones, computers, school work, and games) correlated with increased impulsively, lower self-control, more distractibility, decreased self-esteem, difficulty making friends, and increased depression. In fact, the more one uses a handheld device, the greater the likelihood of anxiety and depression, regardless of the activity on that device.

How it Works

What exactly does the screen do to the brain? Colorful screens, icons, badges, and scrolling are intentionally designed to mimic slot machines. The end result is the user’s brain experiences a “hit” of the feel-good chemical called dopamine. A study done at the University of London showed that the effect of screen time on the brain of children is identical to a hit of 1 gram of cocaine. We are handing our children a drug, one that many of us did not grow up on.

And just like an addict on cocaine, a child on a steady diet of screen time becomes more impulsive, less self-aware, less able to motivate themselves, and less able to show empathy to others. What do we call that in adults? Low EQ – or emotional intelligence. And EQ is a greater determiner of success in life than IQ. Do you make sure your child does his or her homework? Then make sure to track exactly how much time your child spends in front of screens, or all those good grades won’t count. The biggest mental health challenge on university campuses today is emotional fragility. It’s the new young adult epidemic.

Guidelines and Recommendations

So how much time is “too much?” The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following guidelines for TOTAL screen time, including phones, TV, iPads, laptops, and education usage:

AgeHours per Day Max
0 – 2NONE
3 – 5< 1 hr / day
6 – 10< 1.5 hrs / day
11 – 13< 2 hrs / day
14 – 18< 2. 5 hrs / day

Hey, I know as parents we have a lot going on. But trust me, keeping your eye on restricting screen time is one of the most impactful things you can do to ensure your child’s future. Here are some tips to help get you there:

  1. Use the parental controls features on devices and apps. Since your kids’ devices are likely under your plan, you can limit how much overall time they spend on the screen, what times during the day and night they have access, what apps are allowed, and how much time on each app, all while leaving the device free to call you or an emergency number at any time. Oh yeah, you can control the content too. That other half.
  2. Take away phones during play dates, date dates, and hang-out-with-friends dates. Please do this one. We want our kids to know how to interact without the distraction and entertainment of a phone, TV, or game. As an executive coaching and leadership trainer, please .. for their future employer, please help them learn how to play well with others in “real” time.
  3. Have screen-free zones. If your kid has a TV or phone in the bedroom, take it out today. Although that’s not enough. Consider limiting phone time during meal times, play times, anytime homework is not completed, when with a babysitter (you are paying that person to interact with your kid, not watch a screen together), or during family time. You can actually declare family time at any time. You are the grown-up.
  4. Limit background TV. If it’s on, it will get watched. Your kid’s brain needs quiet to learn how to focus and calm itself.
  5. Kick them outside. They will figure out what to do. Make sure getting bored is part of childhood. Or assign them a task. It won’t hurt them, even if they complain. It might actually build some of that future adult mental muscle.
  6. Model good behavior. Are you one your phone while your kid is trying to talk to you? (Yes, I’m guilty as charged on that one). Finish your text, or work email, or Facebook post, and then put your phone down. Show your kids what it’s like to sit at the table and talk, without your phone nearby.
  7. Wait ‘till 8th. Join the growing movement and wait until 8th grade to get your kids a smart phone. What’s the alternative? A dumb phone. Yep, we got those. A phone that looks exactly like a smart phone so your kid will still be cool, but has the functionality of a flip phone. It calls. It texts. It takes pictures and videos. But you can’t download all those distracting apps, and the time limits are über-easy to enforce.
  8. Social 16. Join another growing movement and enforce no social media until 16. Admit it, when you check your own Facebook or Instagram feed, it looks like everyone is having fun without you. We know about the argument that happened right after that picture perfect moment was tagged. But your kid doesn’t have the emotional maturity to sustain that perception (and some days we don’t either). Don’t worry, without social media, he or she won’t be left out of anything except the risk factors for anxiety and depression.

If your kids aren’t complaining about your digital rules, then you’re probably not doing enough. Are you handing your 11-yr. old the keys to the car? Of course not, his mind and body can’t control a car. But giving him a phone is putting him in the driving seat of a equally dangerous device. Phones keep us connected, but just like the benefits and risks of learning to drive, our kids need our guidance and our limitations to keep their brains and bodies safe.

Dr. Michele Fleming is a psychologist, professor, executive coach, and mom. She works with individuals, businesses, and churches to elevate their influence. Her passion is developing Christian leaders. You can reach her at

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