Parents and policymakers express concern over the negative effects of children's screen use, and perhaps for good reason. Past research has documented relationships between children's screen use and distressing outcomes, including increased risk of obesity, fewer real-life interactions, and lower grades. Associations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization have created guidelines instructing parents to limit their children's screen use, and many news articles assert the oft-repeated claim that screen use is bad for kids.

And yet, children's screen use is pervasive, and in many households, screen time increased markedly in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic when the stay-at-home orders went into effect. For many parents, such screen use was seen as a necessary evil—a way to keep their bored children entertained and connected to their friends, to get some work done, and maybe also to get some moments of peace during an inordinately stressful time. So how do parents react when they turn to the resource that they have been told repeatedly could harm their children? Unfortunately, this scenario is an ideal breeding ground for feelings of guilt.

"Parental Screen Guilt"

The pandemic presented an ideal context for us to better understand what we call "parental screen guilt," the extent to which it exists, and how it might affect parents' stress levels and the parent-child relationship. After all, guilt can lead to stress, and past research has shown that stressed parents are less patient with their kids, which can lead to conflict within families.

To study this dynamic, we sent online questionnaires to 141 U.S. parents in March 2020. We asked them to answer questions about how much screen time one of their children had on an average day in the previous week, how much they personally felt guilty and stressed about their child's screen time, and how satisfied they were with the relationship they had with their child. In a follow-up study, we asked 459 additional parents similar questions in April 2020. Of these parents, 192 answered the same questions again in May 2020 so we could explore how their feelings and the effects of those feelings endured over time.

Guilt, Stress, and Family Dynamics

In both studies, we found that parents who felt guilty about letting their children use screens reported greater stress. In fact, their initial guilt affected their future levels of stress, suggesting that it was guilt that led to stress and not the other way around.  And this stress may be consequential. The more stressed parents were about their child's screen time, the less satisfied they were with their relationship with the child.

Although you might expect that parents' guilt depended on how much screen time their children got, we did not find a consistent relationship between them across the two studies.  No relationship emerged in Study 1, though a small relationship was identified in Study 2.  Also, the amount of time children spent with screens did not relate to increased stress or parent-child relationship satisfaction.  Rather, whatever amount of guilt they did experience was tied to their levels of stress.

Rethinking the Negative Image of Screen Time

Overall, our studies highlight that many parents feel guilty about letting their children use screen media and that this guilt can give way to stress and waning parent-child relationship satisfaction. Of course, we cannot know the full extent to which parental screen guilt harms parents and how they interact with their children based on our two studies alone. After all, we relied on what parents told us about screen time and their relationship with their children, and such self-reports don't always paint a fully accurate picture of people's feelings and a child's screen time.

Nevertheless, our work acknowledges the realities of parental screen guilt and its potential negative consequences. Given this guilt likely stems from the societal perception of screen media use as uniformly "bad" for children, we suggest that we as a society need to begin to adopt a more balanced view of the role of media in our children's lives.

With proper guard rails, screen media can provide comfort, relaxation, and even connection with our children. However, based on our research, one prerequisite to enjoying these benefits is that parents allow such (moderate) use without feeling guilty.

For Further Reading

Wolfers, L. N., Nabi, R. L., & Walter, N. (2024). Too much screen time or too much guilt? How child screen time and parental screen guilt affect parental stress and relationship satisfaction. Media Psychology, 1–32.|

Lara N. Wolfers is an assistant professor of youth and media entertainment at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam. She studies how media is used within families and how media is used for coping with stress.

Robin L. Nabi is a full professor of media psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on how media can be used to enhance coping and well-being.

Nathan Walter is an associate professor of media psychology at Northwestern University. His research focuses on cognitive, metacognitive, and emotional processes at the heart of media effects.