Screen time: A little, in moderation, or a lot? What are the effects on children?
Smartphone, tablet, TV, computer, game console: screens are a part of the everyday life of most families, and in general, children enjoy them very much. However, screens should be used sparingly to reduce associated risks, while harnessing their benefits.
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Should we limit children’s exposure to screens?
In North America and Europe, several public health departments and paediatric associations have made recommendations regarding children’s exposure to screens. The following recommendations are issued by the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) and Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines.
Recommendations for children 5 years and under
Because exposure to screens before bedtime can interfere with sleep, it is recommended to turn off screens at least 1 hour before bedtime.
Before 2 years old
Toddlers under the age of 2 should not be exposed to television or any other screen.
From 2 to 5 years old
Children of this age should not spend more than 1 hour per day in front of a screen, all devices combined.
Recommendations for children over 5 years old
In June 2019, the Canadian Paediatric Society issued recommendations for the first time on the use of screens in children over the age of 5. There is no maximum screen time recommended for children this age. The CPS rather focuses on healthy use of screens that does not harm children’s school activities, physical activity, sleep, and social activities, all of which must be prioritized.
Although there is no recommended time limit, the Canadian 24 Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth recommend a maximum screen time of 2 hours per day for children over 5 years of age.
Effect of screens on children’s development
According to a Canadian study, children aged 2 spend an average of 2.4 hours per day in front of a screen, and that time increases to 3.6 hours per day at 3 years old. Once they turn 5 years old, this goes to about 1.6 hours a day.
To ensure proper development, a toddler needs to be in contact with others and do all kinds of activities (e.g., puzzles, modelling clay, crafts, tumbling, throwing a ball, looking at books). Moreover, a child’s interactions with their environment and social circle are their best source of stimulation. Now, the more time a child spends in front of a screen during a day, the less time they have left to play and talk with others. Thus, screens should not take up too much time in their day.
In the same way, heavy use of screens often reduces the time dedicated to physical activities and free play. Several studies have also established a link between the sedentary lifestyle resulting from the use of screens and excess weight in children. In addition, lack of physical activity coupled with a sedentary lifestyle can also hinder the development of motor skills essential to the child’s overall development (e.g., walking, running, throwing, jumping, crawling, etc.).
In children, very high exposure to screens from a young age is associated with the following:
- Underdeveloped motor skills when entering school because they did not run, jump, throw, draw, or cut enough.
- Poor social skills due to lack of interaction.
- Lower cognitive abilities, particularly regarding short-term memory, language development, and learning reading and mathematics.
- Poor control of emotions and behaviour (aggressiveness, difficulty calming down, and passivity).
- Attention deficit.
- Sleep problems.
- Poor self-esteem.
- Health issues (excess weight, obesity, fatigue, headaches, myopia, poor posture, poor diet, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, chronic cardiovascular problems in the long term, etc.).
Using videos to help your infant learn to speak
Studies have shown that videos specifically intended for babies (e.g., Baby Einstein®) have no effect on language development. Even worse, they have been associated with a more limited vocabulary in younger babies.
Is playing on a computer or tablet necessary for development?
Some parents believe that they have to let their toddler play on a computer or tablet to ensure they do not have to catch up with others at school, but this could not be further from truth. Indeed, use of digital technologies in infancy does not enhance the child’s development and does not give them an edge in school later. As a matter of fact, children learn very quickly to use technologies. Reading stories to a toddler, for example, better prepares them for school than teaching them how to use a tablet.
Recommendations for physical activity
According to the Canadian 24 Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth:
Babies under 1 year old should be physically active several times a day in different ways. If they are not moving yet, they should be put on their stomach when they are awake for at least 30 minutes spread throughout the day.
From 1 to 2 years old, toddlers should be active, partly with vigorous games, at least 180 minutes a day.
Children aged 3 and 4 should move for at least 180 minutes, with at least 60 minutes of vigorous play.
Children aged 5 years and older should do at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity per day and several hours of various low-intensity physical activity. They should also engage at least three times a week in vigorous physical activities and activities that strengthen muscles and bones.
Is using screens to calm a child a good idea?
Parents may be tempted to offer a screen to their child to try to calm them down when they are overexcited. The danger with this strategy is that the toddler might be overstimulated by the content (special effects, excessively loud sound, flashing images, etc.).
In addition, if screens are used too often to calm a child, they do not learn self-control or to manage their mood and will thus always need a screen to help deal with their behaviours and emotions. The child must learn to develop strategies to calm down, rather than rely on screens to do so. In addition, giving a child a screen to calm them down is rewarding problematic behaviour. It would be advisable to avoid making this a habit.
Can a toddler become dependent on screens?
Actual addiction to screens or video games in early childhood is extremely rare. However, many young children spend a lot of time using electronic devices, which prevents them from developing a healthy relationship with screens and increases the risk of excessive use later in life.
Some behaviours may indicate screen addiction issues. This could be the case, for example, if the child:
Throws tantrums when asked to turn off electronic devices.
Lies about their use of screens or hides to use them.
Uses screens to calm down or feel better.
Prefers screens to friends and has little interest in other types of activities.
To help prevent future addiction, it is recommended to establish and enforce clear rules to limit the use of screens from early childhood.
Benefits of screens
Of course, screens are not all bad. They provide entertainment and can help your child learn certain things. Nevertheless, screens should not replace interactions with adults and other children or traditional toys (e.g., wooden activity cubes, puzzles, dolls, toy cars).
Experts believe that some applications could be a better learning tool than TV shows or videos because they are interactive. Children may be more stimulated by such applications since they can perform certain actions, such as choosing, pointing, clicking, drawing, and photographing. Interactive applications for learning to read are also believed to help children recognize sounds and learn new words. Quality applications would thus allow for diversifying sources of stimulation for the child.
With regard to television, quality programs for children are said to promote the development of positive attitudes, such as respect of differences. Quality content would also contribute to language development in children 2 years of age and older.
Even video games can have educational benefits when they are selected wisely and age-appropriate. For example, they can contribute to the development of logic, visual and spatial skills, and problem-solving skills. For more information, see our fact sheet Les enfants et les jeux vidéo (in French).
How to foster learning?
That being said, a child using a screen for learning will fare better if they are accompanied by an adult. Therefore, it is a good idea to be with your child when they are playing on a screen or watching TV shows or videos. Commenting on their efforts to complete a level or discussing what is happening on the screen enriches their experience.
Despite the possible educational benefits of screens, you should know that it is still difficult for your child to apply what they have learned with a screen in their daily life. To foster the development of toddlers and children, it is therefore better to accompany them in their use of screens and to choose activities where they can touch and manipulate objects and interact with others.
To enjoy the benefits of screens while protecting children from negative effects, families need to set limits and rules regarding screen use. For more information, see our fact sheet Gérer les écrans : conseils pour les parents (in French).
The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that children under the age of 2 should not be exposed to screens, even for reading. When your child is a bit older, you can occasionally read them a digital book, but this should not replace print books, which children can manipulate and explore with all their senses.
Do screens have a place in the daycare?
According to the Educational Childcare Regulation, a television or other audiovisual equipment may be used in a childcare setting, but only if their use is integrated into the educational program. Despite these regulations, the Ministère de la Famille recommends that educational childcare services do not expose children to screens.
Let us not forget that the time spent in front of a screen in daycare is added to the time in front of a screen at home. If you are concerned about the use of screens in your child’s daycare, talk to your child’s educator.
Things to keep in mind
It is important to set clear rules for your child regarding screen time and to choose content adapted to their age.
To foster their development, a child mainly needs to do a variety of activities and to be in contact with others. Thus, screens should not take up much time in their day.
Screens can have educational benefits, but a child learns better when they are supervised by an adult while using them.
Scientific review: Marie-Anne Sergerie, PhD, psychologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: June 2019
Photos: iStock.com/AMR Image and GettyImages/gradyreese and Rawpixel
Useful links and resources
Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.
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