Kids are spending more time with screen media — and at younger ages — than ever before. But there really is no magic number that’s “just right.” What’s more important is the quality of kids’ media, how it fits into your family’s lifestyle, and how you engage your kids with it.
The idea of screen time as a one-dimensional activity is changing — even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), whose screen time rules had been strictly age-based, is recognizing that not all screen time is created equal. Computers, tablets, and smartphones are multipurpose devices that can be used for lots of purposes. Designating their use simply as “screen time” can miss some important variations. The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens identifies four main categories of screen time.
- Passive consumption: watching TV, reading, and listening to music
- Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the Internet
- Communication: video-chatting and using social media
- Content creation: using devices to make digital art or music
Clearly, there’s a lot of difference among these activities. But as valuable as many of them can be, it’s still important for kids’ overall healthy development to balance their lives with enriching experiences found off screens. These tips can help:
- Pay attention to how your kids act during and after watching TV, playing video games, or hanging out online. If they’re using high-quality, age-appropriate media; their behavior is positive; and their screen-time activities are balanced with plenty of healthy screen-free ones, there’s no need to worry.
- If you’re concerned about heavy media use, consider creating a schedule that works for your family. This can include weekly screen-time limits, limits on the kinds of screens kids can use, and guidelines on the types of activities they can do or programs they can watch. Make sure to get your kids’ input so the plan teaches media literacy and self-regulation, and use this as an opportunity to discover what they like watching, introduce new shows and apps for them to try, or schedule a family movie night.
- A new TLF Panel survey conducted on behalf of kids clothing retailer co.ukfound that four in five parents believe technology and gadgets are good for kids, aiding in their development. The study found that 37 percent of parents asked said that their child spent between one and two hours a day playing with tech gadgets, and 28 percent said between two- and three hours. Moreover, the study found that 38 percent of two- to five-year-olds own an Android tablet, and 32 percent own an iPad; almost a third (32 percent) of these kids also have a mobile phone.
- The reason behind all this gadget use: over a third of parents (35 percent) said they use tech gadgets to entertain their children because they are convenient, and nearly a quarter (23 percent) because they want their children to be tech-savvy. A 2015 survey of 1,000 British mothers of children aged 2 to 12 found that 85 percent of mums admit to using technology to keep the kids occupied while they get on with other activities. The AO.com survey pointed to children spending on average around 17 hours a week in front of a screen – almost double the 8.8 weekly hours spent playing outside.
The AAP ‘s new guidelines, released in October 2016, allow for some screen time for children younger than 2 and emphasize parental involvement for all kids. In a nutshell:
- Avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting for children younger than 18 months.
- If you choose to introduce media to children 18-24 months, find high-quality programming and co-view and co-play.
- Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs for children age 2 to 5 years.
- Create a family media plan with consistent rules and enforce them for older kids.
The reality is that most families will go through periods of heavy and light media use, but, so long as there’s a balance, kids should be just fine.
Affect on academic grades
In 2015 Cambridge University researchers recorded the activities of more than 800 14-year-olds and analysed their GCSE results at 16. Those spending an extra hour a day on screens (TV, computer, games console, phone) saw a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall.
On average, the 14-year-olds said they spent four hours of their leisure time each day watching TV or in front of a computer.
An additional hour of screen-time each day was associated with 9.3 fewer GCSE points at 16 – the equivalent of dropping a grade in two subjects. Two extra hours of screen-time was associated with 18 fewer points – or dropping a grade in four subjects.
Establish screen time rules
So how much screen time is healthy for a 7 year-old, 10 year old, even 1, 2 or 3 year old? How much TV should a child watch? How many hours in front of a computer? You may be be shocked at too how much time in front of a screen has an adverse effect on a child’s health and development.
Parents who want to reduce their children’s screen time need to establish rules to reduce the risk of later health and psychological issues.
There is a lack of clarity of advice, but some government has points for that.
In 2013 the US Department of Health recommended that children under two years of age should not be in front of a screen at all, and over that age the maximum leisure screen time should be no more than two hours a day.
The French government has even banned digital terrestrial TV aimed at all children under three, while Australia and Canada have similar recommendations and guidelines.
Apps to limit screen time for kids
There a few apps that parents can install to actually limit the time their children spend on a computer and/or mobile screen.
British-based ScreenLimit is the only cross-platform/device (iOS, Android, Amazon Kindle Fire, and Windows) solution that we’ve seen. Screen Limit lets parents remotely manage their children’s screen time from a smartphone, tablet or web browser. Each child has a daily time limit (shown via a countdown) that allows them to switch between multiple devices on the same timer ensuring that they can’t use more screen time than they’ve been allocated.
Children can also earn extra screen time by completing set tasks (e.g. brushing teeth, cleaning room, making bed, etc) as well as being penalized for less happy events. Devices and apps can be blocked with one click. Educational apps and websites can be white listed so they don’t use up the child’s precious screen time allocation.
Addiction dangers of too much screen time early in life
“Early screen viewing is likely to lead to long periods of viewing for the rest of your life,”. “The way you view screens when you are young forms the habits you pick up for ever after it seems.”
An early taste for entertainment screen media can lead to changes in the brain that stay with you for life – a life that may be shorter as a result.
Like other addictions screen time creates significant changes in brain chemistry – most notably, in the release of dopamine. This neurotransmitter – also known as the pleasure chemical – is central to addictions from sugar to cocaine.
“Dopamine is produced when we see something that is interesting or new, but it also has a second function. Dopamine is also the neurochemical involved in most addictions – it’s the reward chemical.
“There are concerns among neuroscientists that this dopamine being produced every single day for many years – through for example playing computer games – may change the reward circuitry in a child’s brain and make them more dependent on screen media,”.
(If you want to see some head-scratchingly weighty, early scientific research on computer games and dopamine release, check out this 1998 research paper from the Division of Neuroscience and Psychological Medicine, Imperial College School of Medicine.)
On the perils of too much screen time Sigman has investigated the extent to which time online may be displacing face-to-face contact, and that lack of social connection is associated with physiological changes, increased incidence of illness and higher premature mortality.