We are definitely aware that too much screen time is bad for our kids. We’re familiar with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations and attempt to follow them, sort of. But if your kid has ever complained about being bored, or if you are in a busy place and your kid is inconsolable, you know that the tablet, smartphone, or TV screen is your trusty go-to remedy.
And then 2020 happened. TV, movies, games, and remote learning were our saving grace from quarantine. Now that our society is re-establishing a new norm, what does this mean for children regarding screen time? Has anything changed?
Screen Time is any sedentary activity involving the use of visual electronic media. Since our last post about this topic, the AAP guidelines have remained the same.
To recap, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following:
- Children under 18 months of age should avoid screen time, unless they are video-chatting with family and friends, as it is considered a form of social interaction.
- Children 18-24 months should be exposed to educational programming with parental supervision to discuss what they are seeing.
- Children 2-5 years of age should be limited to 1 hour a day of educational programming with parental supervision to discuss what is being seen and help them apply it to their everyday life.
- Children ages 6 and older should have consistent time limits regarding media usage and type, ensuring that it does not affect their sleep, physical activity, or their daily routines, such as homework and chores.
Even though the guidelines haven’t changed, the perspective of screen time has. The shift towards more interactive tech has altered the way we entertain, educate, and socialize. Rather than place a strict limit on the use of digital devices, the AAP encourages its use in moderation and more family involvement on when and how it’s utilized.
Also, please note that time limit recommendations do not count the time your child spends for remote learning. Online classrooms can take up a lot of child’s day and can be mentally draining. If your child is still in a virtual learning environment, encourage indoor/outdoor independent play first before resorting to screen time for entertainment.
Screen Time Pros
Sitting in front of a screen like a couch-potato is obviously not the best habit, but what if your child is actively participating in games and apps on a tablet? As a parent, you should be able to discern what type of online content promotes interactive learning versus passive entertainment. Recent research has been investigating this topic, and these are the findings thus far:
- A 2017 University of Michigan study found that the way in which children use their devices, not how much time is spent on them, is the strongest predictor of social/emotional issues connected to screen addiction.
- Studies have found that physical activity through playing video games (ex: Nintendo Switch or Pokemon Go) have similar effects to moderate exercise, such as walking, skipping or jogging.
- Research shows that children respond to activity-based programming when it’s fun, customized, and promotes their participation (like coding games).
- Children ages 3-5 years of age have been observed to learn from slow-paced, thoughtfully designed children’s programming, especially when co-viewing with their caregivers.
- Studies show that there is little impact regarding screen time influence on mental health and well-being. Other factors such as parental support or childhood experiences play a bigger role than screen time.
Screen Time Cons
Make no mistake, screen time doesn’t hold a candle to hands-on interaction with the environment and the people within it. Excessive tech use, specifically passive engagement with digital devices, still contribute to the following:
- A 2021 national study found that US preteens with greater screen time usage are more likely to become obese due to limited physical activity.
- A longitudinal study revealed in 2019 that more time spent per week on screens as toddlers is linked with poorer behavioral, cognitive, and social development at age 3.
- A 2005 review showed that television viewing provides no educational benefit for children 2 and younger. Babies and toddlers do not comprehend the images seen on TV or an app as relevant to their lives until around 3 years of age.
- A 2019 study discovered that preschoolers who had limited touch screen tablet use had significantly higher visual perception and fine motor scores than those who were frequently using them.
- Multiple studies found correlations to depressive symptoms and excessive screen time.
The Research Rub
Studies are popping out left and right about screen time. Is it good? Is it bad? Blah blah blah.
More longitudinal studies are being conducted and researchers are catering towards the types of content children are consuming on their devices as well as considering parenting and socioeconomic status. What’s wrong with the existing data? Let’s take a look:
- The current research that supports the current screen time guidelines are mainly correlational, cross-sectional, or self-reported.
- Many studies do not differentiate between what kind of screen time is used, usually lumping together a video chat with a grandma with playing a rousing video game of Fortnite.
- Analysis on studies claiming screen time results in an uptick in dopamine leading to screen addiction reveal that there’s no true method to measure how much dopamine is released, rendering such findings as null and void.
- A 2016 sleep survey was analyzed in 2018, stating that although screen time is associated with less sleep for kids, the amount of lost sleep (3-8 minutes for each hour of screen time) is negligible.
- Although video chatting is permitted for children 18 months and younger, new evidence in 2018 suggest that they find it confusing and will only benefit from it with the participation of their caregiver alongside them.
Moral of the story
Screen time is becoming part of everyday life, but not like how it was for us millennials where our “screen time” involved us sitting in front of a TV or stationed at a computer for hours. The best we can do is to teach our kids how to use their devices responsibly.
The focus should be on how they’re using it rather than for how long, ensuring that it’s used more as a tool rather than a distraction.
Being part of your kid’s two-dimensional world not only can help you bond and understand their interests, but you can also model appropriate behavior and online habits.
Curate the types of apps and content they are consuming. Not all learning games are equal, and some really should be with a parent’s participation.
If you think that your kid is developing bad screen time habits, introduce them to a new hobby, plan a regular play date, or get them involved around the house to break up the sedentary time.
At the end of the day, it’s more about how screen time works in your family routine. The screen time guidelines are just that, guidelines. If anything, use it in moderation and be mindful of its overuse.
What do we really know about kids and screens? (apa.org)
Kids and screen time: Signs your child might be addicted | University of Michigan News (umich.edu)
Active versus Passive Screen Time for Young Children – Penelope Sweetser, Daniel Johnson, Anne Ozdowska, Peta Wyeth, 2012 (sagepub.com)
Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world | Canadian Paediatric Society (cps.ca)
HOW DOES THE TIME CHILDREN SPEND USING DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY IMPACT THEIR MENTAL WELL-BEING, SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY? AN EVIDENCE-FOCUSED LITERATURE REVIEW (unicef-irc.org)
Excessive screen time linked to obesity in US preteen (medicalxpress.com)
An Expert Explains How Screen Time Can Actually Benefit Kids (insider.com)
Fine Motor Skills and Tablet Use – Your Therapy Source
Rethinking screen-time in the time of COVID-19 | UNICEF Office of Global Insight & Policy