How Much Screen Time for Kids is Too Much?
Screen time for kids is a topic of concern for parents, especially for parents of kids under 5. Everyone can agree that excess screen time isn’t good for anyone. But how much is too much?
How young is too young to watch TV or interact with a video, DVD or games on mobile devices? What about educational games?
Experts agree that too much screen time comes with some serious consequences, especially for the youngest children. Touchscreen technology has also added another wrinkle because while it is interactive it can also interfere with sleep patterns.
Here’s what the experts have to say.
Too Much Time On Screens Contributes to Speech & Language Delays
Kids don’t learn better from a screen than they do from you.
A study by Weerasak Chonchaiya and Chandhita Pruksananonda found “a relationship between early onset and high frequency of TV viewing and language delay.”The researchers say children who start watching TV at younger at than 12 months, and for more than two hours per day, were six times more likely to have language delays.
One of the worst possible effects of screen time on the youngest kids is delayed language development. Every minute spent with a screen is a minute that a child doesn’t learn the give-and-take of a real-life conversation. Children don’t receive any needed feedback, encouragement or language correction from a screen.
Babies and toddlers learn best from interacting with a loving caregiver, not from a screen. Reading to your child, singing and playing with your child helps them develop their language skills. A child needs to be able to ask questions and interact to become a confident speaker. There is no electronic substitute that comes close.
Our window of language acquisition is very short, and most language learning occurs before the age of two. If a child doesn’t receive the interaction they need before that age, speech delays are possible.
Cognitive Delays from Excessive Screen Time
Aric Sigman, a fellow of the British Psychological Society is concerned about kids who get hooked on screens at an early age. Excess screen time harms more than just speech development.
The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed”
Watching videos on a tablet is a passive way of learning. It doesn’t engage the child’s mine the way that a one-on-one interaction with a caregiver does. When children are read and spoken to, they create a mental picture from the words spoken and create a storyline to follow in their mind. Kids also receive non-verbal cues from interactions with their caregivers that are important for them to learn, such as tone of voice.
The bottom line? There is no educational video or app that can ever come close to what your child learns during one-on-one time with you.
Screen Time and Childhood Obesity
There is a link between how much screen time kids get and childhood obesity.
The more time a kid watches TV or plays video games, the less time they have for physical activity. There are other factors at play in childhood obesity too – advertisers target kids with unhealthy food choices.
It’s important to note that too much TV can affect children’s BMI. But that’s not all. Excess time spent watching TV as a kid is a factor in adult obesity too.
A 30-year long study in the UK found a direct correlation between the number of hours of TV watched on the weekends to BMI. The more hours TV was watched, the higher an individual’s BMI was at age 30. For every additional hour of TV watched on the weekends, the risk of adult obesity increased by 7%.
A study of 8000 Scottish children found those who watched more than 8 hours of TV per week had increased the risk of obesity by age 7. Japanese and American studies report similar findings.
Having a TV in their bedroom is a strong risk factor for childhood obesity, regardless of kids’ physical activity. Kids with TVs in their bedrooms eat fewer meals with their families, drink more sweetened beverages and eat fewer vegetables than kids without.
Children who spend more time watching TV and engaging with visual media also tend to have reduced and disturbed sleep. Lack of sleep can contribute to metabolic changes, including Type-2 diabetes, which has skyrocketed in children.
Baby & Toddler Screen Time Risks
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that “Infants aged 18 months and younger should not be exposed to any digital media.” The ban includes background noise from televisions. Lights and sounds coming out of your TV are enough to cause “distress and sleep problems” in babies, even the TV is only playing in the background.
And I probably don’t have to tell you that tired kids are cranky kids.
After 18 months, the Academy allows screen time on a limited basis, as long as parents view the digital content with their toddler. This allows you to ask your child questions about the content and have a conversation about it.
The American guidelines make an exception for video chats (like FaceTime or Skype.) Video chat is an important way for kids to stay connected to parents who travel for work, or with grandparents or other family members – and gives them all-important personal interaction.
The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends no screen time at all for children under 2 – and that includes background TV. Paediatrician Michelle Ponti, the chairperson of the task force states:
“The youngest children cannot learn from screens. They’re not developmentally ready to transfer what they see on a screen to real life.”
Children aged 2 and up can learn from quality programming, but it has to be at their developmental level.
Screen Time for Kids Aged 2-5
Experts say screen time for 2-5 year-olds should be limited to under an hour per day. Kids aged 2-to-5 can benefit from quality TV shows as long as they are appropriate for their developmental level.
However, for your toddlers to really benefit from programming, you should watch the show with them. (Yes, I know you’re thinking, “Say it ain’t so!”) Viewing with your child allows you to ask them questions about the content and interact with them. This helps them retain more information than passively watching a screen does.
So what should you look for in programming for preschoolers? CommonSenseMedia.org recommends that parents follow these 5 tips when selecting shows for their kids.
- Look for shows with short episodes – the length of the segments inside the episode count as much as the length of the entire program. Shorter segments mean it’s easier to turn the TV off without causing a toddler meltdown.
- Choose a show that doesn’t drive you crazy – let’s face it, some of the dialogue on kids’ shows is annoying. Pick a show that doesn’t make you feel like you’re bleeding from your eardrums listening to whiny, sing-song voices.
- Pacing and tone – a fast-paced energetic show may be great for your toddler at 10am, but at bedtime? Not so much.
- Avoid programs with ads – shows aimed at the younger set generally avoid ads, but certain networks may cross promote shows. Record your kids’ favourite shows with your PVR to skip the ads.
- Choose shows with messages you care about – exercise buff, science supporter, healthy food advocate, bilingualism booster? You’re sure to find shows that help your kids develop curiosity and enthusiasm about specific topics.
For more information about picking out great shows for your kids, visit Common Sense Media’s post with their picks for Best Preschool TV Shows.
While there are clear viewing guidelines for age five and under, appropriate screen time for age six and over gets murky.
Elementary Age Kids and Screen Time
Surprisingly, there hasn’t been a lot of research on the effects of screen time on school-aged kids. Older kids benefit from age-appropriate TV programming and app usage, but moderation is the key.
Technology makes learning theory a lot more fun than just reading it out of a book but there is a trade-off. Information received from screens promotes only shallow processing, which means information received isn’t deeply encoded in memory. Jotting down notes by hand forces students process and prioritize information before they can write it down, which makes for deeper levels of learning.
So what’s the best way to manage screen time for older kids? Many experts say the best way is to draft a family media plan.
How to Create A Family Media Plan
A family media plan the ages of your children into account. The plan sets out guidelines for when screens shouldn’t be used (for example, at mealtimes, and an hour before bed, no texting when someone is talking to you, no screen time when you’re doing homework, no devices or chargers in the bedroom, no screens in the car, etc.)
Kids watch their parents closely. When your kids see you put away your phone at mealtime, or turn it off when you are having family time or reading, you’ll get less resistance from them to follow suit.
The Canadian Paediatric Society has four common-sense guidelines for screen time. The guidelines help parents manage screen time as much as it helps their kids.
General Screen Time Guidelines for Kids
The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that parents follow the “four M”s when it comes to young children and screen time:
Minimize screen time – No screen time for kids under 2. For 2-5-year-olds, limit screen time to under an hour per day. Make mealtime a screen-free time, and keep kids off screens for an hour before bedtime to lessen sleep disturbances.
Mitigate the risks associated with screen time – Be present when screens are used – don’t hand over your tablet or smartphone to your child and walk away. Be choosy and make education, interactive and age-appropriate content a priority for your child.
Mindful about screen time – Sit down with your family and access how much time you spend as a group on screens. Develop a plan for how, when and where screens can and cannot be used.
Model healthy screen time for your kids – Turn off your devices when they aren’t in use and during family time. Avoid using the TV for background noise. Turn on some music instead if the house is too quiet (quite a feat when kids are around!)
Give Yourself a Break – No One is Perfect
Don’t feel like you’re a bad parent if you turn on a video for your toddler while you grab a shower. We can’t be everywhere at once.
The thing is to be aware of why you’re allowing your child some screen time. If your child constantly has meltdowns because they want to play with the iPad, then it’s time to rethink why you’re allowing them to have it.
Is it to calm them down, or is it having the opposite effect and over-stimulating them?
Even ten years ago, parents didn’t have the electronic options they do now to entertain their kids. Maybe it’s time to go analog again. How did you decide how much screen time was appropriate for your child? Let us know in the comments below!
About the Author
NormaR is our WeBananas tech blogger. She came to us as a crusty copywriter from the Far North who lives and breathes conversions. In her spare time, she's a diehard Edmonton Oilers fan (sadly), a foodie and a passionate landscape photographer.