Updated: Mar 27
Many parents wonder, "How much screen time is too much?" and "How do the screens affect my child?"
Many parents have not considered these issues, as they are just trying to get through the day and make sure their children are well-fed and have rides to/from school. For all of you parents, first and foremost, we acknowledge you are doing the absolute best you can. This blog post is to help you understand the positives and negatives of screen time and to make the healthiest decisions for your children based on research.
Generations that grew up with less technology didn’t have to think so much about screen time. We played outside, would spend countless hours building treehouses, and often went to the neighborhood park with friends. Now children have to be attended to for more activities, don’t go outside as much, and engage in less free-play. As we talked about in previous posts, play is so beneficial for brain development and social engagement. Many children these days receive large amounts of screen time, because it is an easy way to entertain them or they insist on the tv or iPad. Technology is integrated into most parts of our daily lives, which makes it difficult to reduce a child’s exposure. A new report from the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, found that adolescents and young people today are the most "connected" generation. Another study reported the average kid spends about 50 hours a week in front of a screen (television, tablet, or phone). That's more hours than a typical work week!
Technology is so integral to our society that children need to learn how to use it at young ages. However, they do not need over-exposure. They need a healthy balance of playing games on an iPad with playing card and board games, playing on sports teams, reading books, completing homework, interacting socially with friends, etc. Young children need the least screen time out of all ages, as their little brains don’t understand what they are seeing and the imaging moves too fast for them. They need to play with simple toys that move at a slow pace, allowing them to develop problem-solving skills through trial and error. They also learn so much more from meaningful, real life interactions with people they know. Children can learn from screens, but not as much as they would from a real-life interaction.
Screens give off such intense, quick bursts of color that light up children’s brains like fireworks. That is an intense visual and auditory input that children do not receive otherwise. This can make less stimulating activities, such as interacting with people or toys seem trivial. Because they don’t ignite the fireworks. If you ever wonder why your child has difficulty transitioning from screens or insists on them, this is why – their brains crave the fireworks, just like our brains crave Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram. Some studies have shown that the fast-paced images on screens reduce our attention span for other activities, as we expect fast-paced movement and visually-reward stimuli of the fireworks. A child can develop visual deficits from holding an iPad too closely to their face for too many hours of the day. This is reason enough to limit exposure.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations are as follows:
For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.
For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
They made the recommendations based on the fact that 'toddlers learn through social interaction with people who are in meaningful relationships with them; and children don’t recognize faces on screens until 17 months. They recommend no media within an hour before bed; because when children consume screen time, even infants, in the later hours of the day, they have later sleep onset times and less hours of sleep. That is due to the fact that the blue light in screens suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that ignites sleepiness.
With all that said, technology has many positives! But also many potential negatives for young children. If you keep their screen time to the American Association of Pediatric’s recommended amount and increase their play time with real life toys and people, they will have balanced, healthy brain development. That’s what we want for all children, isn’t it? To be the healthiest, happiest little beings possible.
Marielle McKean, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist working with children and adults in outpatient clinic and hospital settings in the Bend, Oregon area. Previously, she enjoyed all that Denver, Colorado had to offer an outdoor enthusiast while also working as a pediatric home health provider. She and Lauren are sisters and are originally from central Washington.