Active vs. Passive Screen Time: What Parents Need to Know

Not all screen time is created equal! Screens are part of modern life, and children interact with them in a variety of ways: watching TV, playing video games, and using cell phones, tablets, or computers.

We know that too much time in front of screens can affect a child’s development. But the impact depends partly on how screens are used. That’s why it’s so important for families to understand the difference between active and passive screen time.

What is passive screen time?

Passive screen time is when your child watches a screen passively, often by themselves. An example of passive screen time would be mindlessly scrolling through online videos, or sitting in front of the TV without interacting with the content on-screen.

With passive screen use, the child is receiving information, but they’re not engaging or participating with it. Passive screen time can lead to decreased creativity and learning, as well as a lack of physical activity. (Think of the old “couch potato” term!)

What is active screen time?

With active screen time, your child engages with what they watch in a meaningful way. Examples of active screen use might include:

  • Using educational apps that involve interaction

  • Video chatting with family members

  • Watching a TV show with a caregiver and talking about what’s on screen

  • Participating in online speech therapy

Active screen time encourages creativity and learning. It allows your child to actively participate. 

How passive screen time affects language development

Many studies have shown that passive screen time can have negative effects on a child’s language development. One study found the more videos toddlers watch, the fewer words they know and say. Each additional hour of videos watched can lead to a reduction of six to eight words in their vocabulary. And before the age of 1, watching more than two hours of TV a day can increase the risk of language delay by six times.

When children spend time passively in front of a screen, they miss opportunities to interact with and learn from the world around them.

The first few years of a child’s life are crucial for language development. When children spend time passively in front of a screen, they miss opportunities to interact with the world around them and learn through listening, imitating, and engaging with other people.

3 ways to promote active screen time

When it comes to screen time, moderation is key. For most families, it’s not realistic to avoid screens altogether! But you can make screen time engaging and meaningful by following these 3 guidelines:

1. Watch content together with your child and talk about what you see

2. Ask questions about the characters and events on screen

3. Make connections between on-screen content and your child's real life

Tips for engaging in active screen time with your child

Below you will find recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics for the amount of screen time your child should be exposed to each day. We’ve also included tips to encourage active screen use to support your child’s language development.  

For toddlers: Try to avoid screen time for children under 18 months, except for video chatting with family while accompanied by an adult. This can be a great way to expose them to interactive conversation, talk about family members, and describe what they see.

For ages 18-24 months: At this age, you can introduce high-quality educational programs and watch them with your child. Explain what’s happening on screen, ask questions, and use new vocabulary.

For example, if you’re watching a show that includes animals, say something like, “Look, there’s a dog! The dog is running.” You can even ask a question like, “What sound does a dog make?” Wait for your child’s response and encourage them to bark: “Yes, that’s right! A dog says ‘woof woof.’”

For ages 2-5 years: Limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour on weekdays and 3 hours on weekend days. Play online games together and watch educational programs. Discuss what you see and relate it to real-life experiences.

For example, if you’re watching an episode of “Curious George” where he goes to the zoo, talk to your child about when they visited the zoo and what animals they saw.

For ages 6 and older: Continue to monitor screen time and ensure it doesn’t interfere with school, sleep, or physical activities. Watch TV or play video games together. Discuss the storylines, comment on the action, and make connections to your child's real-life experiences.

If your child has had a lot of passive screen time, don't dwell on the past. Focus on the changes you can make today to encourage active screen time and support your child's language development!

If you have concerns about your child's language skills, contact your pediatrician or a speech therapist. You can also take our free online screener to see if your child is on track with the communication milestones expected for their age. The sooner your child gets the support they need, the sooner they can start making progress!

Sign up for a consultation
Discuss your communication needs with a speech therapist for free
Get started

More from

Watch learning jump (leap! spring! hop!) from your sessions into the real world.

Get started