How Much Screen Time is Too Much for Kids?

The unfortunate reality of modern childhood is that it involves more screen time than playtime. Children at very young ages are spending more time than ever immersed in screens such as tablets, computers, and smartphones. The outcome is that children are not getting exposure to appropriate play and learning activities, which in turn affects their mental well-being, physical health, and overall development. With recent screen time guidelines put forward by both the American Pediatric Society and the Canadian Paediatric Society, families should begin to think about the impacts of media use on their children. This article will discuss appropriate screen time for young children and provide caregivers with tips on how to unplug at home.

Particularly in early childhood (birth to 5 years), the brain is developing quickly and it is very sensitive to environmental input. This early brain development is the foundation to later cognition and learning. Too much screen time at early ages can impede the development of cognitive, social, physical, and emotional development. Unfortunately for today’s children, the increased use of screen time is becoming part of the routine in family homes.

In North America, children spend about 3 hours a day watching television and another 2-4 hours on other screens such as computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. That’s a total of 5-7 hours per day engrossed in screens!Strasburger VC, Jordan, AB, Donnerstein E. Health Effects of Media on Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2010;125(4):756-767. CHMS, Statistics Canada. Read more in the Active Healthy Kids Canada 2013 Report Card (pages 32 – 36). Children between 3-5 years of age spend approximately 2 hours per day in front of screens.Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2014. Report on physical activity: Is Canada in the running? 10th edn.:43 In the US, rates of mobile use among 2- to 4-year-olds increased from 39 percent to 80 percent between 2011 and 2013 and children between 8 months and 8 years of age are exposed to nearly 4 hours of background TV daily.(5) Common Sense Media. Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America 2013; A Common Sense research studyLapierre MA, Piotrowski JT, Linebarger DL. Background television in the homes of U.S. children. Pediatrics 2012;130(5):839-46. Children in Canada are supposed to be getting at least 60 minutes of daily moderate physical activity. Despite these recommendations, only 9 percent of 5- to 17-year-olds are meeting that target.(7) Statistics Canada. Directly measured physical activity of Canadian adults, 2007 to 2011. Ottawa: Statistics Canada; 2013.

These facts are alarming, especially for children between 0 and 5 years of age. With increased media use, time is taken away from beneficial activities that promote a healthy lifestyle. Children are not experiencing social interaction and engagement with family and friends, have less sleep at night, and are not spending time engaged in outdoor play.

Screen Time By The Numbers - Kids and Screen Time

If children are happy and content using screens and parents receive a bit of a break, then what’s the issue? The issue is that with too much exposure to screens, children are not getting enough time to play, learn, interact with others, or sleep. The decrease in these important areas leads to impediments and negative risks to children’s development and health. Here are some ways in which too much screen time and a lack of healthy activities impact children:

Psychosocial Risks

Increased screen time is displacing face-to-face interactions with family members.Common Sense Media. Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America 2013; A Common Sense research studyPagani LS, Lévesque-Seck F, Fitzpatrick C. Prospective associations between televiewing at toddlerhood and later self-reported social impairment at middle school in a Canadian longitudinal cohort born in 1997/1998. Psychol Med 2016;46(6):3329-37. High levels of screen time at age 2 are associated with social isolation, aggression, and antisocial behaviors in middle childhood.

Language Delays

Preschool children who are not provided opportunities to play with traditional toys like blocks, and instead play with more technological toys, have less vocalization toward parents. Young children less than 12 months old exposed to 2 hours a day of screen time had significant language delays. American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Communications and Media. Media and young minds. Pediatrics 2016;138(5):pii:e20162591.

Physical Health

Children who watch a lot of television in early years are at a higher risk of becoming overweight.Courage ML, Setliff AE. When babies watch television: Attention-getting, attention-holding, and the implications for learning from video material. Developmental Review 2010;30(2):220-38. Children who watch just 1 hour per day of TV are 50 percent more likely to be overweight than children who watched less.Shenouda N, Timmons BW. Preschool focus: Physical activity and screen time. Hamilton, Ont. Child health and exercise medicine program. McMaster University, Issue 5, January

Impediments with Life Skills

Children who spend more time engaged with screens are less able to accomplish age-appropriate life skills such as tying their shoes, riding a bike, or swimming. Preschool children who are exposed to more screen time than playtime are less likely to be able to build with blocks.TheTelegraph,

Poor Sleep Quality

Increased screen time has been linked with poor sleep quality and quantity, and these sleep disturbances impact brain development and correlate with increased behavioral problems.Parent J, Sanders W, Forehand R. (2016). Youth screen time and behavioral health problems: the role of sleep duration and disturbances. J Dev Behav Pediatr. Lack of sleep has also been associated with physical concerns such as diabetes and obesity.Chahal H, Fung C, Kuhle S, Veugelers PJ. Availability and night-time use of electronic entertainment and communication devices are associated with short sleep duration and obesity among Canadian children. Pediatr Obes. 2013; 8(1):42-51.

Advertising Concerns

Watching TV involves advertisements for unhealthy foods, which encourages snacking and increases overall food intake.AAP Council on Communications and Media; Strasburger VC. Children, adolescents, obesity, and the media. Pediatrics 2011;128(1):201-8; erratum 128(3):59

How Screen Time Affects Children - Screen Time and Kids

What amount of screen time is appropriate for children? How do you know how much screen time to allow and what to limit? Here are some recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society:

  • For children under 2 years, screen time is not recommended.
  • For children 2-5 years, limit screen time to 1 hour per day of high quality and educational programming.
  • Do not make screen time a part of child care or supervision for children under 5 years of age.
  • Parents should watch television with children 2-5 years to support them in understanding what they are viewing.
  • For children 6 and older, limit screen time consistently and monitor the types of media they are exposed to.
  • Find the balance between screen time and behaviors that are important to health (sleep, physical activity, social engagement).

Appropriate Screen Time for Kids - Screen Time and Kids

Despite evidence that suggests overexposure to screens hinders children’s development and poses dangerous risks to their mental and physical health, there are potential benefits to letting children (over age 2) use screens. However, these benefits come from the right sort of screen time and finding that balance between screen time and healthy behaviors. It is important to distinguish between different types of screen use. For example, sitting and watching television for 2 hours is not the same as playing a learn-to-read game on a tablet, which is not the same as killing zombies on a computer or game console. Therefore, the benefits come from the type of content that children are exposed to on their screens. For example, a screen that has age-appropriate, educational, goal-oriented content is more likely to be beneficial than a show that models aggressive and violent behavior.

Here are some tips for appropriate screen use and content:

  • Do your research and find out what apps, television shows, movies, e-books, etc., have high-quality programming and material.
  • Choose something that is developmentally appropriate for your child’s age.
  • Teach your child about Internet safety and cyberbullying.
  • Explain commercials to your children through conversations about money and happiness.
  • Consider the types of screen time for your children. For example, instead of an hour of TV, opt for an educational app that is backed up by research.

Getting Children Away from Screens - Screen Time and Kids

We know that screen time has a significant impact on today’s children. However, parents can follow these simple tips to ensure the most appropriate exposure to screens that will provide optimal outcomes for their children:

  • Be Consistent with Limits. Make sure to offer the same amount of screen usage every day for your child. For example, half an hour of screen time in the morning, another half an hour at night.
  • Parents, You Set the Example. You can model good screen behavior for your children by putting down your tablets and cell phones during family time.
  • Avoid Background TV. When not in use, turn off the television to avoid the distractions of TV and normalizing its use.
  • Encourage Other Activities. As a parent, you can model and suggest healthy alternatives such as outdoor play, reading a book, crafts, or board games.
  • Encourage Other Toys. Find toys that promote creativity and curiosity such as craft supplies, clay, blocks, or loose parts.
  • Play with the Kids. Take a little bit of time each day to get down on the floor with your children and interact and communicate.
  • Be a Good Observer, Listener, and Asker. Be more involved in your children’s lives by asking questions, listening to their stories, and observing and commenting on their non-screen time play activities.
  • Maintain Daily Screen-Free Times. Make sure that parts of the day are completely screen-free. For example, family meals, family game nights, and bedtime.
  • Become Media-Literate. Understand television show/tablet game ratings, educational vs. non-educational content, and high-quality vs. low-quality programming.

Screen time can pose many negative risks to children’s health and overall development. However, there are ways for parents to promote a healthier family lifestyle and manage their children’s screen time. Remember to find the balance between screen time and activities that are crucial to learning and development such as physical activity, outdoor play, creativity, sleep, and face-to-face interaction.

Here are some more resources for you and your family:

Creating Your Own Family Media Plan

Finding Ways to Stay Active

Media and Children Communication Toolkit

Picking the Right Educational App

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