TGA of Orange & Alamance Counties

Effects of Screen Time on Children

A row of four young children sitting on a leather couch, fixated on the mobile devices they are each holding.

DOES TOO MUCH SCREEN TIME AFFECT CHILDREN’S DEVELOPMENT?

It’s thought that too much screen time may negatively impact children.  A growing body of research supports this idea, with more studies discovering a link between excessive screen time and suboptimal childhood development. However, because today’s children and teenagers are still young digital natives, it will take time to understand the full, long-term effects of too much screen time on child development.

Even still, addressing the potential issues associated with screen time isn’t as easy as it may seem. Screens are everywhere, which makes them almost impossible to avoid completely. Screens also aren’t entirely or inherently negative, as they provide education, entertainment, and social connection — all of which can be beneficial for your child.

As a parent, you have to determine an appropriate amount of screen time for your children. To that end, it’s crucial to learn more about how screen time may affect your kids and what you can do to minimize screen time and its impacts.

HOW DO SCREENS IMPACT A CHILD’S DEVELOPMENT?

There are several ways that screens are believed to affect a child’s development, as well as their overall health and wellbeing:

SLEEP

Children are susceptible to sleep loss caused by nighttime device use. In addition to making it harder to sleep, pre-bed screen time can result in decreased overall sleep and a reduction in quality of sleep.

This may be due, in part, to the energizing and stimulating effects of blue light. Devices of all sorts, including televisions and smartphones, emit blue light, which inhibits melatonin production and delays sleep. Kids may also get invested in their digital activities and become too excited to fall asleep, or simply stay up past their bedtime. 

From thereon, loss of sleep can be detrimental to childhood development. One study reports that young children who regularly get insufficient sleep may experience cognitive and behavioral issues when they’re older, such as difficulties with executive function tasks and peer relationships. In other words, getting poor sleep during childhood may have enduring and far-reaching health consequences for your kids.

SOCIAL SKILLS

Too much screen time may also affect how children develop socially. According to the findings of one study, excessive screen time at a young age may result in a variety of undeveloped social skills, including those related to interacting with peers, helping other people, and being disruptive. 

Researchers from the study also warned that “long-term implications have been observed for social skills in early childhood.” This includes education, employment, and health outcomes. If your children have more screen time, there’s no guarantee they will encounter these difficulties. Rather, researchers are likely trying to discover if there is some kind of relationship between screen time in childhood, social skills, and these long-term consequences.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that research is conflicted about screen time and its impact on social skill development. A recent study found that screen time doesn’t appear to harm social skills. The researchers did report one exception: children who used online games or social media multiple times per day seemed to have slightly lower social skills. This suggests that the digital activities children participate in during screen time could also impact their development, rather than screen time in and of itself.

EXERCISE

Increased screen time often leads to decreased physical activity. Watching TV, scrolling on social media, remote learning, playing video games, and other screen time activities are all sedentary. For instance, if one of your kids spends too much time playing video games, they have less time to play, move, and enjoy healthier alternatives.

Physical activity is crucial for childhood development and wellbeing. Researchers have found that adolescents enjoy improved mental wellbeing when they spend more time being physically active and less time using electronics.

In addition to physical health benefits, childhood physical activity appears to contribute positively to cognitive development. This means children may even discover academic benefits from playing sports and exercising.

What’s more, one study discovered that active children tend to grow into active adults, carrying their propensity for exercise well into adulthood. Since physical activity is one of the main cornerstones of overall health, your children have a much greater chance of growing into healthy adults if they engage in physical activity, rather than screen time in their youth.

WHAT AGE IS APPROPRIATE TO INTRODUCE SCREENS?

Although screen time certainly has its downsides, it’s quite difficult for most parents to eliminate screens entirely for their kids. As a result, many parents are introducing screens later in life as a compromise. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has specific guidelines for young children’s screen use by age:

  • Younger than 18 months: No screen time (except for video chatting);
  • 18 to 24 months: Limited high-quality and educational programming, co-viewed by parents;
  • Two to five years: One hour of screen time per day, with continued emphasis on high-quality and educational programming that is co-viewed by parents.

For children six and older, the AAP only recommends that parents make and maintain specific rules for screen time. This includes making sure that screen time does not interfere with other essential activities, such as sleep and exercise.

The World Health Organization (WHO) makes the following recommendations for children’s screen time:

  • Less than one year: No screen time;
  • One year: No “sedentary screen time,” such as watching TV;
  • Two years: Less than one hour of sedentary screen time per day;
  • Three to four years: Up to one hour of sedentary screen time per day.

Keep in mind that these are broad recommendations meant to help many parents manage their kids’ screen time. Your family and your circumstances are unique and may warrant a different approach than what the AAP, WHO, or other health authorities recommend. Be sure to work with your pediatrician to determine when your children are ready to be introduced to screens. 

HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY MANAGE CHILDREN’S SCREEN TIME

When it comes to screen time, it’s less about elimination and more about regulation. By focusing on management, you can minimize the risks associated with screen time and teach your kids how to have a healthier relationship with technology.

SET BOUNDARIES

First and foremost, set boundaries around screen time. Overall, rules are important for children, their growth, and their development; rules related to screen time are no exception. 

Establish clear rules about when, where, and how long children can use devices. Whatever limits you decide on, make sure they are appropriate for your household. After all, you must be able to communicate and enforce these rules if they’re broken.

CHOOSE MEDIA WISELY

When your children do have screen time, be careful about the media you let them consume. You don’t need to limit or control everything they watch or do, but you do need to make sure it’s appropriate for them. 

Participate in screen time with your children as much as you can, especially if your kids are still young. Not only will you get to see what they’re doing firsthand, but you can also teach them how to engage with their media mindfully, rather than simply consuming it.

ENSURE SCREEN TIME DOES NOT REPLACE OTHER ACTIVITIES

Make sure your child’s screen time does not take the place of other activities, hobbies, events, or relationships. If you do, you may inadvertently teach your kids that screen time is more important than the other goings-on and people in their life.

If your children are young or have yet to find hobbies they’re passionate about, consider signing them up for a soccer program, piano lessons, or other activities with regular meetings and events. In addition to being beneficial for their development, this will ensure that your children have an activity to do where they are unable to use screens. This may also reinforce that their real-world activities are more important than their digital ones.

USE PARENTAL CONTROLS WHEN NECESSARY

If necessary, use parental controls to manage screen time. Parental controls give your children choice and independence with their screen time while minimizing their chances of overusing technology or using it inappropriately.

Many devices, programs, and apps allow you to set time limits on how long they can be used. These controls can also be used to prevent children from seeing inappropriate content or accidentally making purchases on shared accounts.

KEEP BEDTIME, DINNER TIME, AND FAMILY TIME SCREEN-FREE

Make it clear that there are certain instances where no one gets screen time, such as before bed, during breakfast and dinner, or when your family is spending time together. 

This will teach your children that they don’t need to use screens all day long and ensure they take care of other aspects of their health and life each day.

Additionally, try to limit your own screen time, particularly around your children. If you’re constantly on your phone or leave the TV on all day, that behavior will become normal and acceptable to your kids. Instead, model the behavior you would like them to adopt by decreasing your use of screens.

FOCUS ON A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE

Finally, prioritize living a healthy and balanced life with your family. Don’t focus on the absence or limitation of screens; focus instead on all of the positive actions you’re taking to live happily. That way, screen time will be just one small part of your children’s growth, development, and life.