Your child and screens

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.

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!


Photos: Getty Images/Svetikd and Maxim Morin


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