In today's world, we spend hours looking at screens – whether it be on computers, TVs, tablets or smartphones. But too much screen time may not be healthy for a growing child's brain.
Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and the Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children's Health℠, explains the effects of too much screen time, recommended screen time by age and strategies for parents to limit screen time for kids.
How much screen time is too much?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following screen time guidelines for children:
- Children under 2: Avoid all screen time for children younger than 18-24 months old, except for video-chatting or time co-playing with parents on apps after 6 months of age.
- Children ages 2-5: Children ages 2 to 5 years should have no more than one hour of screen time of high-quality, educational content per day.
- Children ages 6 and older: Establish personal screen time limits that ensure that media does not interfere with sleep, exercise or other healthy behaviors.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) published their own guidelines, recommending that children under 2 years of age should not be exposed to any electronic screens, and that children ages 2-4 should have no more than one hour of sedentary screen time, with less being better.
Effects of too much screen time
Research on screen time is still in its infancy, and the long-term effects of screen time to the developing brain are yet to be seen. Some potential negatives of too much screen time include:
- Speech delays
- Attention problems
- Lower school achievement
- Risk-taking behaviors
One study has shown that increased screen time for children ages 3 to 5 may be associated with negative changes in brain regions associated with language and early reading skills.
Dr. Holland stresses while this research is preliminary, screen time guidelines are not so much about the screens themselves, but more about what screen time takes away from a child, including exercise, sleep or developmental activities.
"Time spent in front of a screen is time that children are missing out on learning valuable skills and developing their brains," explains Dr. Holland.
One of the major skills children learn as they grow is how to communicate with others. As adults, we take for granted our ability to speak and communicate. Children's brains are working hard to develop these complicated skills. The brain is wired to learn language from actively listening to adults (which doesn't happen when the child is focused on a screen) and engaging in in-person interactions and conversations.
"When a child is looking at a screen, they aren't looking at other people," says Dr. Holland. "They are missing out on picking up nonverbal cues and learning how to read others' faces."
Handling boredom and paying attention
While it's understandable why parents use screens to help keep children entertained, boredom is an important part of childhood development – even for older children.
"Screens are naturally appealing to the brain," says Dr. Holland. "It doesn't require a lot of cognitive effort on the child's part. So, when screens are used as a strategy to keep children occupied, the child is not using brain functions to self-regulate and deal with boredom. If those brain functions aren't strong because they haven't been exercised the way the brain needs, it can be a problem later in life."
Dr. Holland says that children need to experience boredom to help develop attention. Whether they're sitting in a classroom learning how to multiply or eating at a restaurant, children need to be able to focus on things that may not be as interesting as a smartphone game.
How to limit screen time
Parents can rely on a few strategies to limit screen time including modeling healthy digital behavior, delaying introduction of screens, and setting clear and consistent rules.
"The first strategy is the toughest," says Dr. Holland. "Parents need to be a good model for behavior. If your child sees you modeling non-screen activities like reading or sports, they will be more likely to want to do those things, too."
Dr. Holland says it is also important to realize that you can't prevent children from using screens, but you can delay it by not giving screens to very young children.
"Even if only because it's easier not to introduce screens than to take them away once a child knows what they are, keep screens out of the picture for as long as you can," says Dr. Holland. "Once screens become inevitable, you have to retain the parent role and remember that screens are a privilege for a child, not a right."
Screen time rules should be clearly explained in terms your child can understand. As with any parenting rules, when enforcing screen-time guidelines, consistency is key. Dr. Holland says parents should be confident in asserting limits on screen time and ensure that other adults (e.g., grandparents, babysitters) enforce those same rules when caring for your child. It may be particularly effective to explain screen time to children as a privilege that can be earned through certain positive behaviors (e.g., doing chores, not fighting with siblings), instead of taking away screens for negative behaviors.
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