Manage Your Kids' Screen Time


Children today occupy a very different world to the one many of us grew up in. The advancement of technology has brought with it a significant change to our children’s leisure time. Now we live with the ubiquitous screen and children are spending more and more time in front of it.

As parents, we’re generally aware that there is potential harm as well as benefits to screen time. But what exactly are they? As we get caught up in the busyness of life, it is not always easy to be fully informed and then feel that we’re not managing our children’s screen time as effectively as we’d like to.

Before we look at how to manage screen time, it’s a good idea to first look at the research. Knowing the research allows us to make informed decisions on how best to manage digital media in our own families.

Not surprisingly, there is a wealth of research in this area. In this post, I’ll break it down and provide you with a clear picture of what the latest research is saying, (the good and the bad!), and then look at how we as parents, can manage screen time for our children. Let’s start with some facts.

The statistics

The statistics below provides an overview of how much children are using digital media and how that time has increased over time.

  • Children under 3 years old spend an average of 3-4 hours a day engaged with screen media. By the age of 8 that increases to 7.5 hours a day (Dr. R. White, 2013).
  • A study by the Australian Spinal Research (2016), noted that
    37% of parents said their child spent between 1-2 hours a day playing with tech gadgets.
    28% said between 2-3 hours were spent on tech gadgets.
    38% of 2-5 year olds owned an android tablet.
    32% owned an iPad
    Almost a third owned a mobile phone.
  • Children aged 5-16 in the UK spend an average of 6.5 hours a day in front of a screen (2015), compared to 3 hours in 1995 (J. Wakefield, BBC, 2015).
  • In 1995, 5-10 year olds in the UK averaged 2.5 hours of TV a day compared to 4.5 hours in 2014, (J. Wakefield, BBC, 2016).
  • Children in America spend between 5-7 hours on screens per day (National Institute of Health’s Medicine Plus, 2015).
  • Early Childhood Ireland (2016), noted that 48% of parents in the study noticed a negative change in their child’s behaviour after using digital media.

It’s clear that children are spending a substantial amount of time in front of screens. Before we delve deeper into the research however, let’s take a look at how young children’s brains develop. This way, we can get a clearer understanding from the research on how screens can affect this development.

Your child’s developing brain

Dr. L. Margalit (2016), outlines how young children’s brains develop and the impact of screen time on this development. She explains that brains develops quickly between birth and the first three years. During this time, the brain is sensitive to the external environment. In the world of medicine, this is referred to as the, ‘critical years’, because the changes that occur in the brain become the, permanent foundation upon which all later brain function is built.

At this stage, if the neural networks in the brain are going to develop normally, children need specific stimuli from the external environment. This is something that has evolved over centuries and is not found on screens!

A significant number of studies have also noted that if a young child doesn’t get enough stimuli from the outside world, their development will become stunted.

In addition, the period between 0-3 years is crucial for the development of the frontal lobe. This part of the brain is responsible for understanding social interactions. It allows us to empathise with others and determine non-verbal cues when talking to people; such as facial expressions to assess how someone is feeling.

Not surprisingly therefore, the healthy development of the frontal lobe relies on real human interactions. If this is compromised through excessive time on the iPad for example, rather than interacting with people, it would interfere with the child’s development of empathetic skills. This can have far reaching implications, such as difficulty making and maintaining friendships.

What does the research say?

There is a wealth of research on the affects of screen time on young children. Here we’ll take a look at some of that research to get an overall picture.

The negative effects of screen time

The Australian Spinal Research Foundation (2016), published a paper that showed there was a direct link between screen time and obesity. They noted that in a study of children aged 1-4, there was an increased risk of 6% of that child becoming obese with every hour of television watched.

This isn’t too surprising, as the more time children spend in front of the television, the less time they are playing and being active.

In addition to the increased risk of obesity however, the foundation also noted other problems associated with prolonged screen time such as: poor sleep/social and cognitive skills and the risk of developing attention related problems later on:

If a child watches 3 hours of television each day, that child will be 30% more likely to develop attention deficit disorder

Research by the University of California also noted that the increased time children are spending in front of screens maybe damaging their ability to recognise other people’s emotions. The study showed that sixth graders who spent five days without interacting with technology whatsoever, were significantly better at reading other people’s emotions (both facial and non-verbal cues), compared to children who had continued to engage with phones, computers and televisions.

Dr. A. Sigman, (fellow of the British Psychology Society), also noted that there has been a number of worrisome studies. These studies connected delayed cognitive development with extended use of screens. He notes that:

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 these abilities are harmed.

Another concern is how screens can take away a child’s opportunity to advance their cognitive skills. When a parent reads to a child, the child has time to process the parent’s voice, to visualise the characters and what’s going on, and to concentrate on following the story. When a screen tells a story, everything is fed to the child all at once: the images, the words and the pictures. The technology does all the thinking for them which does nothing to develop the child’s cognitive skills. (Margalit, 2016).

The benefits of screen time

Screen time and children isn’t all doom and gloom. There has been research suggesting that interactive technology, including videos and computer games can be valuable to a child’s learning. Dr R. White (2015), highlights some of the ways that technology can be a, powerful tool to promote playful learning:

  • Can provide opportunities for children to develop control and self-direction in their learning.
  • The varied forms (visual, tactile and auditory), can meet the needs of children who learn best through a wide range of learning styles.
  • Games can encourage, exploration, experimentation and creativity in problem solving (Goldstein, 2011).
    Dr. White also notes however, that in one study, preschoolers were able to respond correctly to more content and chronology questions after reading books with a parent than when they read electronic books.

Further research also shows how digital media can have a positive effect on children. L. Margalit (2016), notes that although over exposure to screens can have negative lifetime consequences, it can also have benefits if used properly. These benefits include: helping to develop coordination, have quick reactions and even, sharpen language skills.

She cautions however, that these benefits come with the use of screens in moderation and that screens should, never stand in for human interaction or real world face time.

What about television?

manage screen timeMost of us have probably given into the temptation of allowing our children to watch television – and at times, probably too much! During these times, we may have reassured ourselves that it’s not too bad as long as what they are watching is, ‘educational’. But are these ‘educational’ programmes benefitting our children the way we hope they do?

According to studies by the National Centre for Health Research (2015), such education programmes do not help young children learn and may even slow down their learning. They note that for a child under 3, the more they watch the more likely it is that they will have difficulties with paying attention and reading later on.

Furthermore, Zimmerman & Christakis, (2005), noted that for infants 8-16 months old, the more they watch television, the fewer words they know. And this is the case whether the programme is deemed, ‘educational’ or not, such as Sesame Street. The reason behind this is because infants and toddlers learn through interacting with people. They don’t benefit from a direct teaching method, which is often used in these programmes.

In connection with this, an interesting development occurred with programmes marketing themselves as ‘educational’, such as Baby Einstein. As the research had established that there was no educational benefit from these programmes, there was a threat of a class-action lawsuit for deceptive advertising. As a result, Disney started to offer refunds for the videos in 2009 (R. Beauport et al, 2015).

The research and the overall findings are fairly clear: prolonged exposure to screens is doing more harm than good to our children. At the same time, technology isn’t going anywhere, and it clearly brings tremendous benefits.

But as parents, how do we strike a healthy balance between the benefits that technology brings to our children and ensure their development is not damaged by it? The answer would seem to lie in managing screen time effectively.

How to manage your kid’s screen time

A good place to start is with the American Academy of Paediatrics . In October 2016, there was a major change in the recommendations set out by the AAP. Previously, it had advocated no screen time for under 2s. This had caused some concerns, especially in using screen time to speak to distant relatives by Skype for example. Now the APP provides guidance to parents for children up to 5 years old, to help them manage screen time. These include:

  • This age group not having any exposure to screens during meal times and one hour before bed time.
  • For parents of 18-24 month olds who want to introduce digital media, to carefully choose apps that are of high quality programming and to watch/play with the app with the child rather than leaving them alone to do it.
  • Use of Skype/Facetime is fine for children of all ages.
  • With the help of doctors, families to develop plans for using media with different guidelines for each child and recognise the importance of hands-on unstructured social play.
  • For children between 2-5, to, limit screen use to one hour a day of hight quality programming.
  • Parents to act as role models for their children and their use of media.
  • Stress the importance of engaging with the media with their child.

In addition to these guidelines, the APP has also created an online tool for parents (see under references). It’s an interactive guide to help families produce a media plan, so they can choose an approach to managing their children’s media use, according to their needs.

Other strategies to help manage your child’s screen time include:

  • Having bedrooms as screen free areas.
  • Produce family rules for screen use, such as no screens at meal times.
  • Encourage your young child to do other activities, especially playing and outdoor activities.
  • Include your child in the discussions of establishing a family schedule around screen time. If they have been involved in the making of the rules, they are more likely to follow them.
  • Power off regularly to help your child understand the clear boundaries between the virtual world and the real one (Margalit, 2016).

Final thoughts…

The research is clear – extended screen time is going to do more harm than good. Used in moderation however, it can reap many benefits for our children. As parents we need to strike that balance. Developing a plan for the family around screen time seems to be a good starting point. By having clear rules around media use, will help children to have a healthy dose of technology use.

In addition, like in other areas of life, parents acting as role models for responsible media use will go a long way in helping the child follow suit.

To end on, I’ll leave you with this interesting and informative Ted Talk by L. Guernsey, Director of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative.


Related: Reading Aloud:Giving Your Child the Best Start


The AAP interactive media plan: