The Implications of Screen Time for Young Children
Wednesday, August 30, 2017 - 09:00
In June, the Canadian Paediatric Society released new screen time guidelines for children under 5years old. A child’s first experiences with screens can be habit-forming, with lasting implications. While there are potential benefits associated with mindful screen use among children, excessive screen time can present risks for development, psychosocial skills, and physical health. Parents and caregivers play the crucial role in controlling screen time for preschoolers to make it a positive experience.
Potential Benefits of Screen/Media Exposure
Screens include phones, television, tablets, computers, video games, and wearable technology. It is only starting at around 2 years of age that toddlers can begin to understand content presented on screens. Even so, they are limited in their ability to transfer 2D learning to 3D life. Quality, age-specific, educational content, when viewed with an involved parent or caregiver, could include these potential benefits:
- Enhance language skills and social skills, especially for disadvantaged children
- Reinforce empathy, respect, positive racial attitudes, and tolerance
- Support physically active and/or imaginative play
- Provide support to early language and literacy development
There is, however, no known research-based evidence that suggests introducing media or technology to young children is beneficial. Children will always learn and develop faster and deeper with interactive, face-to-face experiences with real people.
Risks of Screen/Media Exposure
There are numerous risks for development, psychosocial skills, and physical health related to excessive and/or age-inappropriate screen use. Prolonged screen exposure in early years is associated with:
- Interference with executive functioning because of an inability to distinguish between real and on-screen life
- Lower cognitive abilities
- Language delays (acquisition and use)
- Short-term memory
- Reading and math skills
- Social isolation, anti-social behaviours, and aggression later in childhood
- Higher rates of obesity
- Lower sleep quality
- Sedentary habits
The Role of Parents and Caregivers
Adults and their own screen use have a large impact on the media habits, and even the daily experiences, of children. Children’s screen use is heavily associated with their parents’ screen time. The growing presence of media in our everyday lives, at home as well as at work, can take over quality face-to-face family time and even result in more negative interactions. In one observational study, the more absorbed parents were using their phone, the more likely their children were to act out to get their attention. Children of any age should not feel they need to compete with screens for parental attention; quality off-screen family time is essential for developing language skills, creative thinking, self-regulation, as well as family relationships.
Particularly for preschoolers, adults influence whether screen time poses benefits or risks. The Canadian Paediatric Society has come up with strategies for parents and caregivers to use to make screen time a positive experience.
Minimize screen time:
- Younger than 2 years old: 0 hours a day
- 2-5 years old: less than 1 hour. Sedentary screen time should not be part of their regular routine.
- Programming should be educational, age-appropriate, and interactive rather than mainstream/commercial programs
- Co-view with children and help connect screen content with real life
- Be purposeful in choosing media content, paying attention to messages about body image, violence, diversity, etc.
- Avoid screen use during family routines and in public places
- Limit content from commercial sources with lots of advertising
- Time children spend watching commercial television is correlated with their BMI
- Teach children to question advertising messages
Model healthy screen use:
- Minimize your own screen time around young children, turning off screens when not in use, and avoiding background TV
- Avoid screens and devices during family time
- Prioritize interactive alternatives like play, conversation, hands-on activities, and reading
There is no evidence that there is an advantage to introducing children to technology early on. Young children learn best through face-to-face interactions with engaged, real people. Sharing meaningful limits on screen time makes more time for family time, reduces time spent sedentary, and is easier than trying to cut back on screen time when children are older. Though these guidelines were targeted towards children under 5 years old, being mindful of the quantity and quality of screen time for older children, adolescents, and even ourselves is still important.
- Canadian Society for Exercise Physiologists (CSEP) guidelines for older children and youth
- Swapping Screen Time for Physical Activity for Preschoolers
Canadian Paediatric Society. (1 June 2017). Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world. Canadian Paediatric Society.
Radesky JS, Kistin CJ, Zuckerman B, Nitzberg K, Gross J, Kaplan-Sanoff M, Augustyn M, Silverstein M. Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants. Pediatrics. 2014; 133(4): 843-849.
Shenouda N, Timmons BW. (Jan 2012). Preschooler focus: Physical activity and screen time. Child Health & Exercise Medicine Program, McMaster University.
Zimmerman FJ, Bell JF. Associations of television content type and obesity in children. American Journal of Public Health. 2010; 100(2): 334-340.
About the Author: Lily is a fourth-year student in the kinesiology program at Western University, currently interning with SIRC. With a background in synchronized swimming, she continues to be actively involved in sport as a coach and varsity athlete.