Turning screen time into family time

Smartphones, televisions, tablets, computers, video game consoles... Screens are everywhere. Do they have an impact on early childhood development and family life? Should parents rethink their own screen habits? Advice and food for thought.


Your child and screens

Young children may love them, but screen devices should be used in moderation to prevent the risks from outweighing the benefits. It’s important to teach your kids how to use them properly and to set limits at a young age.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Young children may love them, but screen devices should be used in moderation to prevent the risks from outweighing the benefits. It’s important to teach your kids how to use them properly and to set limits at a young age.

According to a Canadian study, two-year-olds spend an average of 2.4 hours a day in front of a screen, a figure that rises to 3.6 hours a day by age three. That’s hardly surprising: screens provide entertainment, and many parents find them practical for keeping their kids busy. However, to develop properly, children need human interaction and a wide variety of activities, such as doing puzzles and arts and crafts, sculpting with modelling clay, reading, doing somersaults, and playing catch. In other words, screens should not be the focal point of their day.

“We’ve noticed that some kids have poorer motor skills than others when they start school because they haven’t done enough running, jumping, throwing, drawing, or making cutouts,” says Cathy Tétreault, founder of Centre Cyber-aide. “Some also lack certain social skills because they’ve spent most of their time with screens instead of people.”

Children need to move, interact with others, be read to, and play freely in order to develop properly.

What’s more, young children who spend a lot of time in front of a TV or tablet don’t get enough exercise, which in the long run can lead to becoming overweight. Indeed, studies have demonstrated a link between screens and overweight in children.

“Watching TV for prolonged periods is associated with lower cognitive ability, particularly in relation to short-term memory, language, and early reading and math skills,” says Dr. Stacey Bélanger, a pediatrician at CHU Sainte-Justine and member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Digital Health Task Force.

Screens can also negatively affect children’s ability to regulate their emotions and behaviour, as well as interfere with their sleep. It’s recommended that screens be put away at least one hour before bedtime.

Sixteen-month-old Charlotte’s parents try to avoid exposing their daughter to any screens. This is what the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends: no screens before age two, except to communicate with loved ones through video apps. “We’re not against screens,” says Kevin Galarneau, Charlotte’s dad. “We’ll definitely introduce our daughter to educational games on the tablet in a few months. But for now, she has plenty to discover in her environment.”

After age two, Canadian pediatricians recommend limiting young children’s screen time to one hour per day, regardless of the type of device (smartphone, tablet, TV, computer, or game console).

The upside of screen devices

Of course, screen devices aren’t entirely bad for kids. They’re fun to use and can help reinforce learning. For example, four-year-old Rafael often watches cartoons in Portuguese, his dad’s native tongue. “It’s a way for him to hear more Portuguese,” says his mother, Andrée-Anne Lalancette.

Quality TV programs are another way to promote language learning for children two and up, as well as to teach positive attitudes such as respect for difference,” says Dr. Stacey Bélanger. “Interactive reading apps can also help them recognize sounds and learn new words.”

Even video games can have educational benefits when they are well chosen and adapted to a child’s age. For example, they can contribute to the development of logical reasoning, visual and spatial skills, and problem-solving ability.

However, children learn more if an adult is with them when they’re using a screen device, so it’s a good idea to be by your child’s side when she plays on a tablet or watches television. Congratulating her on getting to the next level in a game or discussing what’s happening on the TV enriches her experience.

Even if your child finds using screen devices fun, you need to set limits and teach her how to use them properly.

Finally, keep in mind that it’s difficult for young children to apply what they’ve learned using a screen to real life. “Young children learn much better in three dimensions, when they can interact directly with their parents and caregivers,” says Dr. Stacey Bélanger.

Time for other activities

If you’re thinking that limiting your child’s screen time is easier said than done, you’re not alone! According to a MediaSmarts study, nearly half of parents find it hard to get their kids to listen when they ask them to turn off a screen device.

“I always have to do a countdown to get my sons to stop playing video games or watching videos,” says Ariane Foisy, mother of four-year-old Zack Émyl and six-year-old Nathan. “They’d be in front of their screens all day if I didn’t set limits.”

Two-year-old Aydann and seven-year-old Malaïka’s parents don’t want their kids to use screens on weekdays, but it’s not always easy. “In the morning, Aydann often comes into our room before we can hide the phone we use as an alarm clock,” says Aurore Robert-Mavounia, Aydann’s mom. “As soon as he sees it, he wants to watch cartoons on YouTube. We try to distract him, but sometimes we give in and let him use it for five minutes.”

Can a toddler become addicted to screens?
A genuine addiction to screens or video games is rare in early childhood. That said, many young children spend far too much time using electronic devices. It prevents them from developing a healthy relationship with screens and increases the risk that they will overuse them later in life.
Psychologist Marie-Anne Sergerie suggests that parents pay attention to behaviours that might indicate their child has a problem with screens: throwing tantrums when asked to turn off electronic devices, lying about their use of screens or using them in secret, using screens to calm down or feel better, preferring screens to friends, or displaying little interest in other activities. “Establishing rules that limit screen time early in your child’s life is a good way to prevent addiction,” she says.

Thierry Plante, a media education specialist at MediaSmarts, suggests that parents think of their child’s day as a glass. “First you fill it with essential activities, such as sleeping, eating, moving around, playing outside, spending time as a family, and playing freely (without a screen). If there’s any time left, then your child can watch TV or play on a tablet.”

Should we go so far as to prohibit young children from using screen devices? “It’s up to parents to decide what’s right for their kids, but screens are a part of our lives and they’re here to stay, so it’s a good idea to show kids how to use them responsibly,” says Normand Landry, a professor at TÉLUQ University and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Media Education and Human Rights.

Keep in mind that good habits are easier to implement at an early age. Setting limits with a young child is also easier than cutting down on an older child’s screen time!

7 tips to manage screen time

How can you help your child develop good habits when it comes to screens? Read our seven tips to find out!

How can you help your child develop good habits when it comes to screens? Read our seven tips to find out!

1. Be mindful about screen time

“Screen time is easier to manage when a child is used to turning the TV or computer on only at specific times or for a specific reason, like to watch their favourite show,” says Thierry Plante, a media education specialist at MediaSmarts. Using a screen shouldn’t become a reflex.

2. Choose quality content.

Focus on programs, videos, and educational games that are tailored to your child’s age group. “You can also encourage her to use screens to create things and develop skills,” says media education specialist Normand Landry. “For example, there are apps for drawing, making up stories, etc. The best apps are those that allow your child to think and actively participate.”

3. Engage with your child during screen time.

For example, talk about what he’s watching, what he’s playing, and what he likes: “What did you like about the story?” “Do you think that could ever happen in real life?” “What do you need to do to reach the next level?”

4. Don’t allow screens in your child’s bedroom.

Otherwise, you might have a hard time managing how she uses them after you’ve tucked her in. It’s also best to turn screens off at least one hour before bedtime. “Light from screens makes the brain think it’s daytime, so the body produces less melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep,” says Cathy Tétreault, founder of Centre Cyber-aide.

5. Give your child a few minutes’ warning before asking him to turn off his screen.

This will keep him from being taken by surprise. Don’t forget that young children have no sense of time. If there are just a few minutes left in the show your child is watching, it’s okay to let him finish it. How would you like it if someone switched off your screen in the middle of your favourite show?

6. Plan screen-free activities.

“To avoid upsetting my son when it’s time to turn off the tablet or TV, I suggest doing other activities he likes, such as drawing, arts and crafts, going to the park, or playing with his toy kitchen,” Andrée-Anne Lalancette, mother of four-year-old Rafael and four-month-old Matias.

7. Accept tantrums.

Some kids will throw a fit when you try to take away their screens. Cathy Tétreault says that parents have to stand their ground. “Being able to walk away from an activity you enjoy when necessary is a useful skill at any age. Remember that your child has everything to gain from doing a variety of activities.”

Too many ads
Young children see ads for unhealthy food on both TV and the internet. According to a recent Canadian study, this could increase their appetite for products that contain a lot of fat, salt, or sugar. Young children are not mature enough to know the difference between advertising and other content. “You can, however, talk to your child about how advertising works and explain that it’s used to get people to buy products,” suggests Landry. “That will help your child start to develop critical thinking skills.” You can also choose ad-free apps.

Are screens coming between you and your child?

Many parents log a lot of screen time, which can lead to less quality time with their kids.

Many parents log a lot of screen time, which can lead to less quality time with their kids.

Some parents can’t help but check their phones to go on social media or send a text even while they’re taking their child for a walk in her stroller, feeding her, having a meal, playing a game, or spending time at the park. More and more scientific studies are examining the impact of screens on family life, and the results are sobering: when parents are focused on an electronic device, they interact less with their children and pay less attention to them.

Catherine Piché, mother of 16-month-old Charlotte, has noticed how distracting technology can be. “To be there for a friend who was going through a hard time, I was constantly on Messenger for a few days to chat with my friends. At one point I realized I was so absorbed in my phone that I was paying less attention when my daughter talked to me. I wasn’t happy about that!”

“Look at me!”

Interacting with young children is essential to their development. “Your child needs you to talk to her, look at her, and play with her,” says psychologist Marie-Anne Sergerie. “It’s essential to helping her build self-esteem, develop social skills, manage her emotions, and learn in general. When a child lacks attention, she may express her needs in a negative way, like by throwing a tantrum.” Studies show that the more time parents spend on electronic devices, the more their children misbehave.

Reduce your screen time

It goes without saying that screens are useful. The challenge is finding a balance so that they don’t disrupt your family life. Using them less when you’re around your kids is a good start. Ariane Foisy, mother of four-year-old Zack Émyl and six-year-old Nathan, is trying to do just that. “I have a small business and I used to work on my laptop on weekends. Someone pointed it out to me and it made me think. Since then, my weekends have been more about spending time with my sons than working.”

For her part, Aurore Robert-Mavounia, mother of two-year old Aydann and seven-year-old Malaïka, has deleted a lot of the apps on her phone. “The more time I spent checking who said what on Facebook or playing games, the less quality time I spent with my family.”

More ideas for managing your screen time

  • Establish a noscreen rule (that includes smartphones!) during key family moments: dinnertime, bedtime, trips to the park, etc.
  • Challenge yourself to switch off all screens and play with your child for 10 to 15 minutes at least a few times a week.
  • Get into the habit of putting your phone down right away and looking at your child when he talks to you or wants your attention.
  • Use an app that keeps tabs on how much you use your phone (e.g., Moment, ActionDash) and set goals to gradually decrease the time you spend on it.

Finding it hard to cut down?

Are you addicted to your phone or to video games? Start by trying to figure out why: do you use your phone to escape boredom, avoid your problems, reduce stress, relax, or calm down? “Pay attention as well to how you feel when you can’t use your device,” says Marie-Anne Sergerie. “If you get grumpy, frustrated, upset, or depressed, it could be a sign that you’re using it to manage your emotions.”

If this rings true for you, Sergerie suggests exploring healthier ways to meet your needs, such as walking, meditating, exercising, taking your child to the park, reading, or listening to music. “The idea isn’t to eliminate screens altogether but to remember that there are other ways to keep yourself entertained.” she adds.

By using screens in moderation, you set a good example for your child. “I worked hard to break my addiction to my smartphone,” says Aurore. “I want to show my kids that there’s more to life than staring at screens, starting with showing an interest in the people around us.”

Your child’s digital footprint

According to a MediaSmarts survey, about 75 percent of parents share photos or videos of their kids on social media. A British survey found that parents post an average of 300 photos of their kids on social media each year. That adds up to 1,500 photos before they’ve even turned five! This phenomenon raises concerns about children’s privacy. “The child hasn’t consented to any of this,” says Cathy Tétreault of Centre Cyber-aide. “When she grows up, she might not appreciate seeing her whole life on the internet, especially since the images will probably still be traceable.” Her advice to parents is to limit posting pictures of their kids as much as possible and to make the photos accessible to their loved ones only. It’s also a good idea to let relatives know about these rules to make sure they respect them too.

Screens: True or false

Screen time: Separating fact from fiction

Screen time: Separating fact from fiction.

Having the TV on when nobody’s watching it isn’t good for kids.


Long periods of TV background noise can affect a child’s development. “It can interfere with language, concentration, intellectual development, and executive functions [e.g., organization, planning, and managing emotions],” says Dr. Stacey Bélanger of CHU Sainte-Justine. Even if the kids aren’t watching, having the TV on is a distraction that prevents them from doing more stimulating activities, such as interacting with their parents and caregivers or playing with toys.

During the holidays, kids have the right to relax, so it isn’t necessary to limit their screen time.


“Children shouldn’t view screens as the only way to relax or the most fun activity,” says Cathy Tétreault of Centre Cyber-aide. “Over the holidays, we should be spending more time as a family and doing things we don’t usually get to do. Screen time shouldn’t be a priority. Bad habits form fast, and it might be hard to go back to normal afterwards.” Thierry Plante of MediaSmarts suggests focusing on quality over quantity. “You can use electronic devices to do creative activities with children like making music or animated videos.”

Childcare centres aren’t allowed to use screens, not even for watching educational programs.


Current regulations allow educational childcare centres to use TVs or other audiovisual equipment if they are part of the curriculum. However, even though screens are not prohibited, the Ministère de la Famille suggests avoiding them because young children should spend their time moving around and exploring their environment rather than looking at screens. If you’re concerned about your child being exposed to screens at daycare, don’t hesitate to talk to the educator.

Watching TV or videos at mealtimes encourages children to eat more even if they’re no longer hungry.


Watching TV or playing a video game while eating distracts children from what’s on their plate. When they’re absorbed by what’s happening on the screen, they eat automatically without necessarily thinking about whether they’re hungry. This can lead to overeating. In order for your child to learn to listen to her body and not eat when she’s not hungry, it’s important not to use screens at mealtimes. It’s also easier to have family discussions that way!

Watching TV calms children down.

Neither true nor false

According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, screens can be useful from time to time for calming an overexcited child. However, it’s important to avoid content that is overstimulating (special effects, loud volume, fast editing, etc.). At the same time, screens can become a crutch if used too often: the child might come to rely on screens to manage his behaviour and emotions. It’s also not a good idea to make a habit of using screens to deal with difficult behaviour, as the child might perceive it as a reward.

It’s important for young children to learn to use a computer or tablet, otherwise they’ll lag behind their peers when they start school.



Using digital technologies at a young age isn’t beneficial to a child’s development and doesn’t give kids an advantage in school later. “Children learn to use technology very quickly,” says psychologist Marie-Anne Sergerie. “What we should really be concerned about is kids who spend too much time looking at screens.” Media education specialist Normand Landry adds, “What benefits kids at school isn’t knowing how to use a tablet but having been read to.”


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, May–June 2019
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Catalina Briceño, author and visiting professor at UQAM’s media school


Photos (in order): GettyImages/Svetikd, Maxim Morin, GettyImages/PeopleImages et Kiankhoon, GettyImages/VorDa, Maxim Morin et GettyImages/Rawpixel, GettyImages/Damircudic, globalmoments et MonkeyBusinessImages