Children and screen time
Updated: Feb 19
NOTE: the information in this article comes from scientific research within the last 5 years on the date of publication.
Screens Are Everywhere
70 years ago, CBC Television (TV) had just made its debut . It was not long until the TV would become a common feature in nearly every family home. Today, there are many forms of digital devices and screens in homes, schools, and the community. Computers, smartphones, tablets, and TVs are found everywhere. As a result, people, including children, are spending more time on screens. In the United States of America, 98% of children ages 0-8 live in a home with internet access and spend more than 2 hours a day on screens .
How Much Time Should Children Spend on Screens?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that children ages 0-2 (zero to two) years old should spend no time on screens at all (APA) . They also recommend that children ages 2-5 (two to five) should spend less than 1 hour per day on screens.
Excessive Screen Time Negatively Affects Children’s Development
Research in Canada (Calgary, Alberta) shows that children spent roughly 1-4 hours per day at age 2, roughly 1.5-5.5 hours per day at age 3, and roughly 1-2 hours per day at age 5 .
The Canadian study also revealed that “...screen time can impinge on children’s ability to develop optimally” . This study measured five different developmental areas:
· communication skills,
· fine motor skills (close, grab, open, use tools and toys, write, etc.),
· gross motor skills (crawl, run, sit, throw, walk, etc.),
· personal and social skills, and
· problem solving skills .
Children in the Canadian study who spent more time on screens at 24 months showed significantly poorer ability in these areas at 36 months. Additionally, children who spent more time on screens at 36 months showed significantly poorer ability in these areas at 60 months .
Family and Social Factors Affect Screen Time
Research in Turkey (Kırşehir) shows that children ages 3-6 spent roughly 2 hours per day watching TV, 1 hour per day on a smartphone, and 40 minutes per day on a tablet .
The Turkish study also revealed that family socio-economic status (SES) and parent (caregiver) screen time both have an influence on children’s screen time:
Children from lower SES families tend to spend more time on screens than children from higher SES families.
Children whose parents (caregivers) spend more time on screens tend to spend more time on screens than children whose parents (caregivers) spend less time on screens. This was a stronger effect than SES .
It is also worth noting that the Turkish study showed that the adults spend more time on screens overall, using TV, smartphones, and computers considerably more than their children. Children in this study used tablets more.
The First Five Years In a Screen-Rich Environment
The body, brain, and mind develop rapidly during infancy and early childhood. Research in neuroscience supports what Sigmund Freud wrote more than 100 years ago: the experiences in these years have a powerful influence on how a child develops . When children spend excessive time on screens, they miss important experiences needed to develop the skills needed for life.
Children learn through observation and adults have a powerful influence on the children in their life. Adults can model healthy or unhealthy behaviours. When adults spend excessive time on screens, then it is likely their children will as well.
Social factors also play a part in children’s screen time. Children from Low SES families already face many challenges. Numerous factors (both caregivers working full-time, caregivers working multiple jobs, disability) mean that adults in Low SES families may have less ability to monitor their children’s screen usage and less time to spend with their children.
Carefully monitor children’s screen time using AAP and WHO recommendations.
Model moderation in screen usage and interests outside of digital technology.
Advocate for governments to support Low SES families (economically, educationally) so they may spend more time with their children on activities known to support optimal child development.
 APA. (2020). What do we really know about kids and screens? Research by psychologists and others is giving us a better understanding of the risks and potential benefits of children’s and teens’ use of digital devices. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/cover-kids-screens
 ASQ. (2022). ASQ-3. https://agesandstages.com/products-pricing/asq3/
 Common Sense Media. (2017). The Common Sense Census: Media use by kids age zero to eight 2017. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/the-common- sense-census-media-use-by-kids-age-zero-to-eight-2017
 Madigan, S., Browne, D., Racine, N., Mori, C., & Tough, S. (2019). Association between screen time and children’s performance on a developmental screening test. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(3), 244-250. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5056
 Siegel, D. (2020). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.