Dear Carolyn,

I have two children ages 5 and 8. I am in a divorce. Dad has half time, and I have half time. The problem is screens. I disagree with the way Dad allows the 5- and 8-year olds to use screens. There are virtually no restrictions. The 5-year-old is gaining weight from lack of physical activity. The 8-year-old watches something on a screen through most dinners at Dad’s. The problem is that I look like the bad guy when I enforce time limits on screens and remove screens at dinner and bedtime. What do I do?


Carolyn Answers….

This is a growing problem in family law, and I hear the disconnect between households where children live under two roofs almost daily. This is a major parenting issue, and I strongly recommend that you have guidelines for screens in your child custody order. If you cannot agree in mediation on guidelines, ask the judge for screen guidelines. Here are some thoughts for guidelines for your child custody order.

The World Health Organization has just released guidelines regarding screen time. Of particular concern are children young children that need to be more active and need more sleep. Screens interfere with both sleep and activity.

Previously, the American Academy of Pediatrics  (AAP) has a set of guideline recommendations for “screen time” for children and adolescents. Before getting to the specifics of the AAP recommendations, there are family policy issues to consider.

(1) The very first consideration is that families need to be extremely thoughtful regarding the entire family’s use of screens. Why? When you use a screen, such as an iPad, smart phone, or another digital device, you are selecting to do that activity over another activity—which should be a conscious decision. Use of screens can become an addiction. Use of screens can interfere with balance for physical exercise, sleep, homework, artistic endeavors, and meals.

(2) The parents should be a screen mentor for the child regarding the healthy use of screens.  The parent should teach the child the use of screens for the proper reason, such as learning or connection with another human.

(3) There should be family guidelines for when there are no screens allowed, such as at meal time or bedtime. Perhaps the screens should be left over night at a charging station well away from the children’s bedrooms or perhaps even in the parent’s bedrooms to make sure the children don’t “sneak” screen time in the middle of the night.

(4) Teaching a healthy use of screens also involves teaching how to use respect in communication and a discussion of reporting bullying to the parent. With these recommendations in tow, let’s look at the guidelines.

Let’s start with the wee little ones.  For infants and toddlers under the age of 18 months, the AAP recommends no screen time, except if required for video chatting with an absent parent or grandparent. Of course, the video chatting would be limited in duration and supervised.

Ages 18 months to 2-years-old. The parents need to discuss whether the introduction to screens is right for their child. If the parents decide to introduce screens to this age child, then the programming should be high quality and a parent should watch with the child and explain the media to the child.

Ages 2 to 5. Limit screen time to one hour per day. The parent should spend time with the child watching the screen and explaining. A screen is not a babysitting device in this age group. Bubble Guppiesis a great program for this age group, but not for 3 or 4 hours a day.

Ages 6 and older. Here’s where it gets difficult, and the AAP did not make a suggestion on how many hours to allow per day. I personally think that one hour of “free” screen time for anyone should be the limit. Of course, homework may require a screen, but “free” time should have some limit, as there are other things in life than screens—sports, music, dance, homework not on a screen. Each parent has to decide for that family what the rule should be. This is often a problem for children if children live with parents in two separate households with different rules. It is imperative that parents in separate households try to have similar rules for screens.



Send your questions on family law and divorce matters to “Ask Carolyn…”, or P.O. Box 9023, Greensboro, NC 27427.  Please do not put identifying information in your questions. Note that the answers in “Ask Carolyn” are intended to provide general legal information, and the answers are not specific legal advice for your situation.  The column also uses hypothetical questions.  A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need in yourindividualcase.  Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by “Ask Carolyn…” “Ask Carolyn” will be a regular column, but not necessarily weekly.