Dr. Becky Wants Parents To Feel Less Guilty About Giving a Kid Screen Time (or Taking It Away)

Graphic: W+G Creative; Photo: Courtesy Becky Kennedy, PhD
A common reality of parenting a young child is that what's best for them might not be what satisfies them. Case in point? Screen time—which kids can all but demand, but which plenty of health agencies have a hardline stance against. (The World Health Organization specifies a less-is-more recommendation on screen time, as does the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, for just two examples.) The push-pull can result in a whole lot of parent guilt when making decisions either to hand over or restrict the phone or tablet. But when it comes to offering tips for parents on managing screen time, clinical psychologist Becky Kennedy, PhD—who goes by Dr. Becky—says it's essential to remember: "It's not our job to make our kids happy."

Experts In This Article
  • Becky Kennedy, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of online parenting service Good Inside

Dr. Becky, who is the founder of parenting-advice platform Good Inside, shares this eyebrow-raising, script-flipping nugget of wisdom with me in a Zoom conversation on the topic of screen time tips for parents, which was the subject of her recent partnership with Amazon Kids. She contends that getting comfortable with not giving kids exactly what they want is central to parenting—and embracing that reality can help with issues surrounding screen time. “Our job as a parent is to make key decisions and to empathize with our kids’ feelings,” Dr. Becky says. “Our kid’s job is to have feelings.”

“Our job as a parent is to make key decisions and to empathize with our kids’ feelings. Our kid’s job is to have feelings.” —Becky Kennedy, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of Good Inside

To illustrate this point, Dr. Becky uses a metaphor of air travel: Let’s say you’re flying to Seattle, but the pilot needs to make an emergency landing in Kansas. Passengers might be annoyed, but it’s unlikely any would want the pilot to actually listen to the gripes and fly to Seattle anyway. In other words, kids benefit from following the lead of parents, who have their safety and best interests in mind. With regard to screen time, Dr. Becky says one way parents can protect their kids' safety is via parental controls on devices (which Amazon Kids+ Parent Dashboard offers).

Understanding that reality can help you fly your own proverbial plane in the direction you want it to go, with respect to screen time. To boost your confidence, Dr. Becky suggests reminding yourself that you're in charge of the decisions, and your kid is in charge of their feelings. "Tell yourself, 'The sturdier they know I am in my decisions, the safer they’re going to feel,'" she says.

Making those decisions, however, can still feel tricky. On the one hand, there's the "screen time is bad" stance of the health organizations above, as well as research published in 2023 that found an association between screen time and developmental delays1 in children younger than four years old. (Note that such research did not establish a causal relationship and didn’t answer for a number of nuances, like whether screens were being used for educational or entertainment purposes.) But on the other hand, there's the realities of daily life—like needing to focus on an important work call while working from home, or just feeling incredibly exhausted at the end of a day—which can make passing your child a screen feel all but necessary.

The particular guilt that can rise up in response to allowing a child screen time, however, is less about the screen time itself, says Dr. Becky, and more reflective of a foundational issue with which so many parents contend: “There's no other job in the world where we're given no training or resources,” she says. And not feeling effectively supported and resourced is the real reason why you might question whether you're making the wrong call in handing over a device to a child, she says.

To that end, Dr. Becky wants parents to give themselves permission to feel less guilty about screen-time decisions and more empowered to pilot their own plane—which can mean making changes when and how they want. “My pilot never has to ask me to switch altitudes; if they think it’s a good idea to switch altitudes on my behalf, I hope they do it,” Dr. Becky says. “Remind yourself that making key decisions sometimes involves turbulence, but at the end of the day, it’s for the safety of your kids.”

Below, Dr. Becky shares a few tips for parents when it comes to making guilt-free decisions about screen time.

3 screen time tips for parents to remove feelings of guilt

1. Know that guilt around screen time often *isn't* about screen time at all

As mentioned, one reason many parents turn to screens is because of a foundational resourcing issue: Parents don’t have the support they need at all times—and parenting is an overwhelming job! Dr. Becky says screen time can give parents a break, which can be helpful... but not when a strong undercurrent of guilt is present.

“We [often] let the guilt consume us, and then we spend 20 minutes telling ourselves what an awful parent we are, or we try to avoid the guilt,” says Dr. Becky. “Neither is actually helpful because guilt is trying to help us learn about what we value and align our actions with those values. If we let [guilt] swallow us or if we ignore it, we actually don't get that benefit.”

The best way to respond to guilt, says Dr. Becky, is to consider what's guiding it instead. Is it truly that you think your child gets too much screen time? Is it that certain parents in your sphere are vocal about their screen-time guidelines, which makes you feel badly? Understanding the genesis of your guilt is a necessary first step of mindfully addressing it.

2. Remember that you, as the parent, make the rules

It may seem obvious that you are in charge of your kid—but that isn't always exactly how things go down in practice. Can you imagine a situation when a parent is apt to pull out a screen to avoid a dinner-table meltdown at a restaurant? Or to avoid an argument at the end of a long day? “Our kids can smell when we're scared of their protest,” Dr. Becky says. But, contrary to popular belief, she doesn’t believe that kids use this information to take advantage of their parents. Rather, they can sense that no one is taking charge, which can lead to fear—and more protesting and tantrums.

For an example of how to address resistance to new screen-time rules, Dr. Becky provides the following script, which you can adapt to your specific needs: “What I'd suggest saying to your kid is, ‘Hey, we're going to change the amount of screen time. We've had a lot of time on your iPad while we've been traveling. That's fine. Starting today, here's what we're doing instead.’”

While a child is probably not going to express gratitude for such clarity and structure, being intentional and communicative will make clear to everyone involved what the plan is, which will make following it easier in the long run. “Your kid isn't going to say, ‘Oh, thank you for making such good decisions on my behalf,’” Dr. Becky says. “They're [probably] going to cry. But you can remind yourself that's exactly how important situations go: ‘I'm in charge of the decisions. My kid is in charge of their feelings.’”

3. Trust that you’re not "ruining" your child with screen time

One of the top questions that Dr. Becky gets from parents around the issue of screen time is: “Have I messed up my kid forever?” And to this, her answer is a resounding no, regardless of your family’s guidelines.

Inherent to that question is feeling guilty about whatever the current dynamic is with screen time. But one of the best parts of being a parent, says Dr. Becky, is that you can change your mind and change the rules whenever you want. That's not to say you should go about changing a kid's bedtime or screen-time rules willy-nilly, she clarifies, but when you know something isn't working in your home, there's no reason to feel powerless. After all, you're the adult here—and that’s nothing to feel guilty about embracing.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Takahashi, Ippei et al. “Screen Time at Age 1 Year and Communication and Problem-Solving Developmental Delay at 2 and 4 Years.” JAMA pediatrics vol. 177,10 (2023): 1039-1046. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.3057

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