In recent years, the dangers and benefits of screen time for children has been a widely debated topic. It’s not surprising that it has become such an urgent topic for discussion. After all, technology has now advanced to the point that it influences almost every facet of modern life, from food and entertainment, to work and learning. The newest generation is growing up with an unprecedented amount of exposure to technology. We have no long term data on the effects of this kind of exposure on human growth and development. It’s totally understandable that parents have questions and even concerns. Some of the opposing arguments are covered here, but ultimately it’s up to you as the parent to decide what is best for your child and your family as a whole.
Some people, although not the majority, hold the opinion that screen time is ultimately harmless for children. People who hold to this idea generally claim that there is nothing wrong with regular, even extended, screen exposure for kids. This assumes that the material is educational and age-appropriate. Indeed, the captivating nature of screens can often serve as a stand-in babysitter for overworked and exhausted parents. Every parent knows the feeling of reaching the end of their rope and feeling like they would give anything for a few moments of peace and sanity, or the chance to actually get something done. In fact, according to a study published by the University of Washington, parents most often use screen time as a diversion when they have important tasks to complete or have mentally and emotionally hit a wall.
We’ve gone from one extreme to the other. These people believe children should have little to no exposure to screens and certainly not on a regular basis. This theory states that screen time causes developmental harm to children, and they may not be entirely wrong. There are some studies that have found connections between developmental problems, such as attention disorders, in children and higher amounts of screen time. It should be stated, however, that they have not determined causation. One study points out that they are unsure if it is the screen time specifically causing these developmental delays, or whether children with developmental delays are given more screen time as a tool to manage behavior. While very few parents are practically able to cut out all screen exposure, many intentionally place strict limits around how much is allowed.
What the experts think
Most experts agree that other forms of entertainment are far more valuable for children than screen time. However, most also agree that some limited screen time is fine for the vast majority of children. Children’s screen exposure should be based around educational, interactive, and child appropriate content. One common recommendation is to think of screen time like dessert. Not something to have a lot of every day, but it can enhance the experience of life when enjoyed in small amounts.
And in fact, there is some evidence that there are moderate benefits. According to the same University of Washington study, children can benefit from limited screen time. Benefits listed included things like increased empathy, creativity, problem-solving, and word skills.
As the adult, it is important to be the one to set the limits. Young children do not yet have the ability to self-regulate these kinds of behaviors. There is also some evidence that screens are addictive, making it difficult for even adults to properly limit their own screen use. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released some recommended guidelines for parents of children under five years old. According to WHO, Children aged between two and four should be limited to one hour of screen time each day, while children under two should have none.
How to manage screen time for your child
Some free applications that can help you track your child’s screen use include Ourpact, Boomerang, ESET, Norton Family, Limitly, and Screen Limit. Not all of these apps work on all tech platforms, so make sure to find one that will work with your operating system of choice. If you are using Apple devices, you can set up an Apple account for your child and use the innate “screen time” application to both track and limit your child’s screen time.
In addition, many parents have reported that one of the main screen related tantrum triggers is when a screen experience is stopped at an unnatural point. This could be in the middle of a video, game, or TV show. Making an effort to stop media time at a natural breaking point helps give your child a more natural transition back to other types of activities. One frustration parents reported was autoplay features on services like Netflix requires them to be ready to shut things off at the precisely right moment. If the next video starts, even for a few seconds, they found their child less able to handle the limiting of their screen time. Luckily, there is a way to turn off autoplay in your Netflix account settings. In addition, having a regular routine can help make the transition easier in the long run.
In this case, the old adage is true, “The dose doth make the poison.” Regardless of age, too much screen time is harmful to our health. If we spend too much time in front of screens and not enough time outside or doing active, meaningful activities, it will impact both our physical and mental health. Ultimately, screen time is not a healthy substitute for real imaginative play and positive social interactions. That doesn’t mean you have to forgo screens altogether, just set smart boundaries around them for both your children and yourself.