Impact on child development
Most of the current research on the impact of screen time has been done on children over the age of 5. Very few studies have been conducted on toddler and preschool age children and this is an area that needs more focused research. The existing literature points to problems in cognitive development, social emotional regulation skills, behavioral problems, and language development delays. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than 1 hour a day of screen time for children between the ages of 2 and 5, and no screen time for babies and toddlers other than interactive face time with loved ones. Theories about why screens have such an impact on young children discuss the displacement of other important developmental tasks when using screens too much. Children at this stage need to have unstructured play time to foster creativity and social interaction skills. They also learn self regulation skills from their caregivers, but when they are given a screen as a coping tool for difficult emotions, they don’t learn to regulate their own emotions and this is an important skill that is developed at this stage of life. The development of language skills is also a large part of this stage and research shows a correlation with higher screen time and delayed language development. This is another skill that children learn best from their caregivers. Watching educational content can be helpful in developing language skills, and expanding vocabulary, but co-viewing with caregivers who can interact with them while watching greatly increases the benefits of the educational content. Excessive screen time for young children can also have a negative impact on their sleep, which is also really important for healthy development of the brain and body. When young children do not get adequate sleep, the effects are real and lasting, so this is not one to ignore. Excessive screen time for young children often leads to lower overall physical activity. Young children have a high developmental need to move their bodies. The current recommendations of the CDC for physical activity for young children under the age of 5 is to be physically active often throughout the day. Many sources advise at least 3 hours a day cumulative physical activity. When children are viewing screens too much, physical activity and outdoor play can be limited and result in health and well being consequences.
Children who are older than 5 have different developmental tasks and are impacted differently by screen time and use. Research points to an increase in behavioral disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and obesity with excessive use of screens. Children and teens use screens in school for learning as well as with their own devices or smartphones. There is also a distinction between active screen time and passive screen time. More research is needed in this area, but current understanding points to less of an impact when actively using screens and devices for learning, rather than passively watching videos or shows. Content matters here as well. Children and teens are often exposed to inappropriate sexual or violent content and that is also linked with higher incidence of behavioral or mental disorders. Displacement of sleep and physical activity are a big issue at this developmental stage as well so the American Academy of Pediatrics does not have a specific screen time recommendation for this age, but instead recommends balancing screen time with adequate sleep, regular physical activity of at least an hour a day, and non screen time activities.
What can parents do?
Parents can be intentional about how they choose to interact with screens. Watching high-quality shows like Daniel tiger’s neighborhood, or Sesame Street and talking to kids about what they are learning can be a useful learning tool for literacy building and social-emotional regulation with children over the age of 2. For babies and toddlers under the age of 2, research has shown that there is really no benefit to screens for learning, so watching baby Einstein or other “educational videos” is not helpful, and in fact is harmful to their brain development. These young children cannot take in information from screens the same way that older children can, and kids ages 2-5 benefit most when they are interacting with their caregivers while watching. Children older than 5 will often be viewing screens on their own and will need parents who set limits, are aware of content that their children are viewing and establish family rules that are enforced like no screens at meal time, screen free zones in the home, and times of day where screens are not used. One helpful rule to have is no screens in the bedroom. This allows parents to monitor use better, and takes away the temptation for children to use screens at night when they should be sleeping. A great resource for parents is commonsensemedia.org. This website allows parents to check the appropriateness of content of movies, books and other media for their children. It gives a parental rating, a kid rating, and a breakdown of what areas of concern a media source may present. Another really important piece of advice is to not be afraid of boredom. Allowing unstructured time for kids develops their creativity and allows their brains to have the quiet thinking time they need. This is a time when they can learn distress tolerance and discover creative interests.
Families can also build in non screen activities as part of their lifestyle. Sports, music, and regular outdoor play, like trips to the park, increases engagement in other activities and contributes to overall health. As kids get older, parents need to teach children about online safety and privacy. Kids are exposed to so many different games and apps on the internet and they need to learn the dangers of sharing private information in the same way we teach our children to be mindful of strangers in public. Parents are the greatest role models for every area of life for their kids and this is no exception. Parents can teach healthy boundaries by having healthy boundaries in their own lives. Showing interest in other activities, exercising regularly, and not keeping the TV on all day model good limit setting. Finally, use screens to build connections with family and friends. These are amazing tools that increase our ability to stay connected to friends and family. Using phones to facetime with far away family, calling friends, or keeping in touch using technology can increase feelings of connection with others and this is a good thing. We can incorporate screens into a healthy lifestyle and access more tools than ever before for learning, fun and connection. Screens and technology are not going away, so the best thing we can do is to create a healthy, balanced life for our children that includes physical activity, adequate sleep, creative interests, academic growth, and strong family and friend connections.
AACAP. (2022). Screen Time and Children. https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021). Media and Children. https://www.aap.org/en/patient-care/media-and-children/
Choe, D. E., Lawrence, A. C., & Cingel, D. P. (2022). The role of different screen media devices, child dysregulation, and parent screen media use in children’s self-regulation. Psychology of Popular Media. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000412
Guerrero, M. D., Barnes, J. D., Chaput, J.-P., & Tremblay, M. S. (2019). Screen time and problem behaviors in children: exploring the mediating role of sleep duration. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 16(1), 105. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-019-0862-x
Kids’ Screen Time Rose 52% During the Pandemic, Study Says. (n.d.). Retrieved December 22, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20221114/kids-screen-time-rose-sharply-during-pandemic-study-says
Kim, S., Favotto, L., Halladay, J., Wang, L., Boyle, M. H., & Georgiades, K. (2020). Differential associations between passive and active forms of screen time and adolescent mood and anxiety disorders. Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, 55(11), 1469–1478. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-020-01833-9
Sukhpreet K Tamana, Victor Ezeugwu, Joyce Chikuma, Diana L Lefebvre, Meghan B Azad, Theo J Moraes, Padmaja Subbarao, Allan B Becker, Stuart E Turvey, Malcolm R Sears, Bruce D Dick, Valerie Carson, Carmen Rasmussen, CHILD study Investigators, Jacqueline Pei, & Piush J Mandhane. (2019). Screen-time is associated with inattention problems in preschoolers: Results from the CHILD birth cohort study. PLoS ONE, 14(4), e0213995–e0213995. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0213995
Xie, G., Deng, Q., Cao, J., & Chang, Q. (2020). Digital screen time and its effect on preschoolers’ behavior in China: results from a cross-sectional study. Italian Journal of Pediatrics, 46(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13052-020-0776-x