Screen addiction in children is a growing problem. A majority of parents allow their young children to use digital technologies to learn, play, and socialise and are often unaware of the potential harm that excessive screen time can have on a developing brain.
Of course, when talking about excessive screen time, it’s important to remember that screen activities vary widely. Despite what may have been said in the past, the majority of modern research suggests that it’s the quality of a young person’s screen time which matters most, not the quantity.
That being said, during early childhood, children need to learn about the world by interacting with it. They often do this by getting outdoors, playing with tangible toys, and through socialising with others. Therefore, spending too much time in the online world can be harmful to young children.
When it comes to young children, experts recommend digital media activities which promote embodied learning and interaction with others. Such activities may include high-quality programming, educational games, and video-calls with distant friends and relatives. They also recommend ongoing parental involvement and proactive screen time management.
To help parents to feel educated and empowered about managing their child’s screen time, we’ve consolidated research from a range of reputable sources and compiled a list of need to know information and advice.
The Positive & Negative Effects Of Screen Time
On its own, screen time is not inherently bad for young children. Due to sensationalised scary headlines about Internet Gaming Disorder and smartphone addictions, parents tend to fear recreational screen time and view it as a bad habit or vice. Yet, playing on digital devices and gaming consoles is not an entirely bad thing for young children to do. In fact, there are proven benefits to establishing digital literacy from a young age.
Children who consume a lot of electronic media tend to develop beneficial multitasking capabilities, yet they may also run the risk of losing their ability to focus. Concentration is an important skill for children to possess because it assists with problem-solving and learning. If a child is unable to focus for prolonged periods of time, it can be hugely detrimental to their academic performance and overall cognitive development.
There is also a common fear among parents that screen time isolates them from their child. This fear most likely comes from a place of guilt. As with anything enjoyable, children have a tendency to desire things that, in excessive amounts, are bad for them. Having your child glued to their screen may create the impression that they’re being isolated from you, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Parents should try to actively engage in screen time with their child, either by taking an interest in what they’re doing or by doing it with them. In fact, studies have suggested that the greatest benefit of digital learning comes when there’s a combination of engaging with high-quality programming and talking about it with a parent.
The physical aspects of too much screen time are also particularly concerning. Studies have shown that excessive sedentariness - especially with poor posture - leads to increased risk of physical injury, obesity, and sleep deprivation. New Zealand’s Government, Ministry of Education and Sport, and Ministry of Health worked together to issue a report outlining what a healthy 24 hours looks like for school-aged children (5-17 years). The report identified that, in the average day, growing children need:
- 9 to 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep for 5-to-13-year-olds, and 8 to 10 hours for those aged 14-to-17-years-old - ideally with a consistent sleep and wake time
- A total accumulation of at least 1 hour of physical activity (moderate to vigorous)
- Regular movement and extended periods of being upright instead of seated
So where does that leave us? Should we assume that, so long as children are getting enough sleep and exercise, it doesn’t matter how much time they otherwise spend being glued to their devices?
The short answer is no. While research into screen addiction is still relatively new and far from definitive, it’s universally recognised that doing any one thing in excess can have potentially negative consequences. This, of course, brings us back to the same question - how much screen time is too much?
How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?
In order to address the matter of how to ration screen time, parents need to be mindful of age. The point at which parents need to be most vigilant is early childhood, as this is a critical phase in development and learning. Then, as children grow older, screens become more commonplace in their day-to-day lives. To help parents to understand recommended age-based allocations, we’ve summarised the key research findings below:
0-4 years-old: There’s a fairly unified belief amongst researchers and academics that children under 3 should have little to no interaction with electronic devices. The American Academy of Pediatrics strictly advise parents against allowing children younger than 18-months-old to use digital devices; with the exception of video-chatting with distant friends and family members.
They further advise parents of 18-to-24-month-olds that any introduction to digital media should be a collaborative parent-child exercise. Toddlers learn best when they play together with others, and parents should, therefore, avoid letting them use electronic devices by themselves.
Dr. Kimberly Young, founder of the Center for Internet Addiction, believes that infants under the age of 3 will suffer developmentally from any screen time at all. However, the AAP believes that, for children between 2-to-5-years-of-age, screen time is acceptable so long as it is accompanied by stringent time limits; “limit screen use to no more than 1 hour (per day) of high-quality programming” Where possible, parents should co-view and co-play with their children, and ensure that all activities they participate have a learning component.
5-15 years-old: As children get older their device usage will be extended to include mandatory, school-related screen time. When it comes to 21st Century learning, it’s difficult to avoid technology, and it’s highly probable that your child will need to have access to a desktop computer and/or tablet in order to participate in their in-class activities and to complete their homework. Therefore, enforced screen-time allocations may need to be extended in order to include school work (although, digital devices are full of distractions, so it may be necessary to monitor their productivity).
Research indicates that parents should not allow their school-aged children more than 2 hours per day of recreational screen time. Unlike in toddlers and preschool-aged children, parents do not necessarily need to be directly involved in their school-aged-child’s screen time activities, so long as they are aware of where they’re spending their time and actively managing any risks that could arise.
While this may seem low for teenagers when combined with screen time for academic purposes (which invariably increases with age) the total amount of time spent being sedentary behind a screen can add up drastically. Excessive screen time can negatively impact a young person’s mental and physical well-being, especially when it encroaches on sleep time and physical activity.
7 Simple Steps To Help Minimise Screen Addiction In Childre
Parents can help their children to develop a healthy relationship with technology by taking the following steps:
- Remind your child that having a digital device is a privilege, not a right. If they act in a way that indicates they’re not responsible enough to be entrusted with a device, it will be taken away.
- Set aside some time each day for device-free family bonding. You may want to consider joining the Device Free Dinner Challenge set by Common Sense Media which encourages all family members to unplug and interact over a meal.
- Establish ground rules regarding which forms of technology your child is allowed to use, when and where it’s appropriate, and how you will monitor usage.
- When establishing technology rules, you should also agree on how to reward good behaviour, and how to penalise bad behaviour. It’s best to decide on rewards and penalties proactively, not reactively.
- Model the behaviours that you want to see in your child.
- Get involved! Play games with your child, ask them questions about their screen time activities, and take an interest in their online world.
- Finally, support your child in achieving a healthy balance of screen time and real world time by encouraging them to participate in a regular physical activity, read books, and explore the contents of their imagination.
Today’s children are growing up in a digital world and it is our duty as parents to ensure that technology plays a positive role in their lives. However, this can be challenging for parents who didn’t grow up as digital citizens themselves. The Wangle Family Insites parental control app locks to children’s phones and helps parents to understand device information such as most used apps, time spent gaming, on social media, or messaging, and even recent GPS locations. Not only does the app help parents to manage and prevent screen addiction in children, but it also sends detailed alerts when a threat is identified, along with qualified advice on how to respond.
Want To Know More
The Smart Talk
An interactive tool for families to use to negotiate screen time rules.
Common Sense Media Device Free Dinners
Ideas and resources to help families have a balanced digital life.
Young Children and Screen Time PDF
Tips and checklists for parents to help children get off to a good start with digital devices.