How bad is screen time, really?
Show us a parent who claims they don't let their children indulge in a little screen time every now and then, and we will show you a liar. Screens, from TVs to our digital devices, have become prolific in our lives, so much so that the average adult spends over four hours a day looking at one. But what’s the harm? Digital devices aren’t going anywhere, so we might as well let our children use them so they know what they’re in for in the future, right?
When it comes to the harm that too much screen time can do to young children, the ill effects range from frustrating to life-altering. What might feel like just a couple of hours of TV a day can, in fact, change the structure of your child’s brain and damage their behavioural, physical and emotional wellbeing.
Fortunately though, parents and grandparents can play a huge and critical role in helping their little ones develop healthy screen time habits. To celebrate our latest release, April’s Window, (the ultimate book to encourage children to get out and explore!) we spoke to neuroscience communicator and early learning specialist Jill Sweatman, who talked us through the harmful effects of screentime, how to know when your little one has had too much, and how to make the most of screen time.
What are the harmful effects of screen time?
Firstly, the bad news. Too much screen time can - and in fact, will - harm your child. And alarmingly, we don’t even yet know how much harm it will inflict, as the current era we are living in is so fundamentally different from previous ones.
The degree to which things have changed when it comes to screens is staggering. Back in 1970, children were first exposed to screens (TVs, usually) at around four years old. Now, they are usually exposed from four months old. Screens nowadays have also become much more ubiquitous, with digital devices now able to be transported just about anywhere, as opposed to the humble TV, which was usually only found in a loungeroom. This is creating a frightening phenomenon, Jill believes:
“We are living in a giant uncontrolled experiment for which there is no reset button. The reality is that we still do not fully know the short or long term implications of excess screen time on young brains.”
Yet of the evidence we do have, much of it points to the fact that screens affect our children’s development, ability to learn, attention spans, and sleep. Here are all the ways that too much screen time can harm our little ones:
Harmful Effect 1: Screen time and early childhood development
The first five years of a child’s life are crucial from a development perspective. In those early years, children learn the skills they need to succeed later in life, including how to regulate their behaviour, communicate and function independently.
But unfortunately, too much screen time can interfere with this process. Young children learn by exploring and interacting with their environment, as well as with the adults around them. Yet if they are in front of a screen all the time, they develop what researchers call a kind of ‘tunnel vision’ where they do not engage as well with typical everyday activities.
And this has long-lasting effects. A longitudinal study of children aged two to five showed that children who were regularly spending more than one hour a day in front of a screen showed significantly slower progress on key developmental milestones relating to communication, problem solving and social interaction.
Harmful Effect 2: Screen time and language development
Children learn everything from their environment, including how to communicate. And although it may seem like screens can assist with this, they do not do so in an interactive enough format to be truly helpful.
Research into how children acquire language shows that they absorb a lot through reciprocal dialogue, especially between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. What this essentially means is that children require an actual ‘conversation,’ including facial expressions and a reaction from another person, to truly acquire language.
In addition to this, the passive experience provided on a screen is of no use to children under 2, who do not have the ability to learn or understand what they are seeing anyway.
Harmful Effect 3: Screen time and the ability to pay attention
As children grow and begin their school life, they need to develop the ability to pay attention to absorb what is being taught. Yet unfortunately, this is another ability that is harmed by screen time.
Research into the long-term effects of screen time shows that there is a direct relationship between it and attention problems at school. In fact, for every additional hour (per day) a child under three watches a screen, their chance of attention problems at school increases by 10%. What this means is that a toddler who watches 2-3 hours of YouTube or Netflix a day may have a 30% chance of attention and learning issues at school.
Harmful Effect 4: Screen time and children's sleep
The saying goes that as soon as you become a parent, you can forget about a good night’s sleep, and even though that might be true, none of us want to decrease the likelihood that our children might sleep through the night.
Unfortunately, screen time does just that. As humans, we rely on our circadian rhythms (and the resulting production of melatonin, the sleep hormone) to regulate our sleep. When we or our little ones spend too much time on screens, the blue light they provide can inhibit our melatonin, which can keep us awake and harm the quality of our sleep.
And sleep interruption can happen from a very young age. One study of infants as young as 6 months old showed that those exposed to screens showed significantly shorter night time sleep.
Harmful Effect 5: Screen time and addiction
We all know the feeling of picking up a phone or tablet and being drawn in. Suddenly, hours have gone by and you have no idea how. The same thing happens to children but there’s a big difference: while we are able to make a conscious decision to put the phone down, young children aren’t.
There’s growing evidence that children who are exposed to screens from a young age normalise them, and want more and more of them as they grow up (a sign of compulsion). And as children grow up, the issues with screen time grow and grow. By the time children are teenagers, too much screen time can be associated with self-esteem issues, sleep deprivation, poor academic performance, social isolation and obesity.
No one wants their child to experience these issues. And in fact, no one wants their child to sleep less, be delayed in meeting their developmental milestones, have communication issues, or not be able to pay attention at school. As parents, grandparents and carers we should - in fact, we must - help our children develop a healthy relationship with screens.
What are the signs and symptoms that a child might be having too much screen time?
It’s abundantly clear that too much screen time is harmful for children. But how much is too much?
The American Academy of Paediatrics recommend that children have no more screen time than the following:
- 18 months and younger: No screen time other than video chatting
- 18-24 months: Limited screen time, if any. If parents want to introduce digital media, they should watch the program with their children and explain it.
- 2-5 years: Maximum of 1 hour per day. Parents should still watch the program with their children and interact with them about it.
- 6-12 years: Limited screen time. Parents should ensure that screen time doesn’t replace sleep, exercise and socialising.
Of course, every parent or grandparent will know that on certain days, it might be difficult to stick to limits. But how do you know, then, if your child might be having too much screen time?
The following three signs may indicate that they have:
1. Your child prefers screens to people
The ability to interact with others is a key developmental milestone in a child’s early years, and even if they’re naturally introverted, they should enjoy other people’s company.
So if your child seems more interested in a screen than people, you should be worried. When someone is talking to them, do they look up from a screen? When a sibling wants to play with them, do they engage or continue to watch whatever is on their screen?
A disinterest in people and a preference for screens is a sure sign that your child has had too much screen time.
2. Your child’s eyes seem strained
Too much screen time can be damaging physically, not just developmentally. It can strain your child’s eyes and lead to vision problems.
If you are worried that your child has had too much screen time, get their eyes checked. If they are straining to see objects in the distance, they may have spent too much time looking at a screen.
3. Your child is showing signs of being overstimulated
Children who have had too much screen time often exhibit a range of behavioural problems associated with overstimulation. These problems include, but are not limited to:
- Being aggressive
- The inability to sit still
- Emotional shutdowns or tantrums
- Being irritable
- Being defiant
As any parent would know, though, many of these behaviours are exhibited by young children all the time. But if they are particularly acute, it may be a sign that your child has had too much screen time.
Behavioural issues as a result of too much screen time is something that Jill has regularly seen through her work:
“I frequently hear parents, and even older siblings, comment on the change in mood and behaviour of children immediately after they have been on a screen for a period of time. They are often short-tempered, whiny and disrupt the harmony of family life.”
What can parents do to help children develop a healthy relationship with the screen?
While the harmful effects of screen time might sound terrifying, there’s some good news: they are far from inevitable. According to Jill, parents, grandparents and carers have a defining role to play when it comes to children and how they use screens:
“Children need adults for guidance. They need these people in their lives to be informed and not complacent as to the time factor, nature and content of what the cyber world offers … and the consequences of overindulging.”
For anyone who wants their children to develop a healthy relationship with the screen, experts recommend the follow:
1. Encourage co-viewing
When it comes to how much screen time a child should have, experts definitely recommend following the American Academy of Paediatrics’ recommendations. Beyond that, though, all screen time should be a co-viewing activity. This is not only so parents can monitor what a child watches, but also how much.
Jill believes it’s particularly important for parents to be around for any screen time activities, as they may not be what they seem:
“Take, for example, the video game Fortnite. It’s got lots of colour, great animation and some cute elements. But the sole purpose of the game is to be the last person standing while you kill 99 other players."
2. Be a good role model
Just as children learn everything from adults, so too do they learn their attitude to digital devices. If as a parent or grandparent, you’re spending hours online, children will naturally not question this behaviour and as they grow up, will rebel if they seemingly are not allowed to do something you do.
Jill believes that we all need to be cognizant of the message we are sending to our children:
“Seeing parents sit and read books or newspapers sends a strong message about how important that is vis-a-vis everyone on their own individual screen.”
3. Provide lots of other activities
It might seem obvious, but screen time can only take up hours if those hours are available. One of the best ways to limit screen time is to simply not have to limit it at all by there being no time for it.
When it comes to activities that children can or should be doing instead of screen time, the list is endless. Whether you are encouraging your little ones to go outside and ride their bike, play at a playground, or simply explore the dirt in their own backyard, each activity can have a myriad of learning benefits.
4. Let your children be bored
One of the many reasons that children are given screens is to relieve boredom. But being bored is actually good for children, says Jill. She believes:
“When children are bored and lack external stimulation, it leaves space for them to become creative. It is in these times that they explore things, invent and create.
This creation is important, as it’s not manufactured by a marketeer, game or social media designer. Unfortunately, those people do not have your child’s cognitive, emotional or behavioural best interests at heart.”
5. Read to your child instead
With early literacy skills being one of the biggest predictors of lifelong success, one of the best activities you can do to replace screen time is read to your child - and ideally, read a physical book as opposed to reading on a screen.
Research shows that reading a physical children’s book is much more beneficial than an eBook as screens encourage a different way of reading whereby children scan the screen, as opposed to reading each word. This can lead to a scattered and challenging reading experience, even if they are not yet at reading age.
In today’s digital-first world, screen time, and even too much screen time, may seem inevitable. But in reality, there are thousands of things children can be doing to replace it. Jill strongly believes that parents and carers should feel empowered to make the right choices when it comes to screen time:
“I encourage all parents and grandparents to provide an environment for their child that is constructive and conducive to healthy brain growth.”
A world without screens?
In the 21st century, it’s difficult to imagine a world without screens. You’re likely reading this on a screen. 2.6 billion of us have Facebook. The average person will watch 78,000 hours of television in their lives.
But let’s just think for a second about what life would be like - for us, and particularly, for our little ones - if we spent less time on our screens. Jill firmly believes that our children will certainly not admonish us for giving them less screen time:
“I don’t believe that by the time a child or grandchild reaches the end of school, they will accuse you of stifling their future success if they did not have a heavy diet of online games and social media.”
Yet beyond this, one of the biggest issues with screen time is not only the harm that it does, but what other parts of life our children might miss out on. As the great American author Glennon Doyle said:
“We are raising a generation of writers who will never start writing, artists who will never start doodling, chefs who will never make a mess of the kitchens … and musicians who will never pick up their aunt’s guitar and start strumming.”
Here’s to less screen time, and more time enjoying life!
Designed to speak curiosity and encourage little ones to get out and about, our latest release April’s Window is as gorgeous as it is meaningful. Grab your copy here.