Expert Advice for Children’s Screen Time

If you’ve wondered how much access your children should have to electronic screens, learn what experts say about daily screen time for kids at different ages.

As parents notice the impact that electronic devices have on their social interactions and family time, they are understandably concerned about the short- and long-term developmental effects of their children's interactions with screens. Fortunately, a number of recent studies have yielded expert recommendations that can inform your decisions about screen time for your child.

Defining Screen Time

Experts have defined screen time as any activity that takes place in front of an electronic screen. This includes watching TV, texting, and playing video games. It also encompasses all the time spent on the computer — for reading, studying, watching movies, or posting on Facebook. Screen time carries benefits as well as drawbacks. The age of your child and the stage of her developmental growth should serve as significant guideposts in setting screen time limits.

Benefits and Risks of Screen Time

There are, of course, differences in the quality of time spent in front of electronic screens, which keep viewers engaged in activities ranging from highly effective educational applications to passive television programs. Computers, tablets, and even smartphones have been used to provide flexible support for students at all levels of achievement. They can also aid English-language mastery and enable access to a wealth of Internet content. Innovative educators are using these technologies to increase student engagement through the use of instructional games, concept mapping, and self-assessments. In addition, many teachers use technology tools to teach students how to work collaboratively with each other — within the same school community, from district to district, or even from country to country.

As Patricia Greenfield, Professor of Psychology at UCLA, told NPR reporter Juana Summers, "It's all about how things are used. And how much they're used. And what they're used for." When academic activities online don’t entirely replace in-person interaction, they can reasonably be considered “good screen time.” Greenfield adds, "You're not substituting screen time for interaction time. You're substituting alone time with the screen for alone time with your paper and pen." Many teachers encourage students to use electronic devices to do work at home and reserve classroom time for face-to-face interactions. When this is not possible — because, for instance, a student attends an online school — curricula often still call for participants to meet in person regularly.

When unrestricted and unmonitored, however, screen time has well-documented potentially detrimental effects , including:

  • Weight gain and obesity due to low levels of physical activity
  • Difficulty sleeping due to the neurochemical effects of electronic device illumination
  • Increased risk of emotional and behavior problems, including attention problems and bullying
  • Desensitization to violence
  • Lower creativity and poorer academic performance

Screen time is, after all, sedentary time. It entails little physical movement or energy expenditure, and it typically involves little or no interaction with another person or the surrounding environment.

Dr. Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), sums up the benefits and drawbacks of screen time well: "If used appropriately, it's wonderful. We don't want to demonize media, because it's going to be a part of everybody's lives increasingly, and we have to teach children ... how to make sure it's not going to take the place of all the other good stuff out there."

Screen Time Guidelines for Different Ages and Settings

There is widespread agreement on both the amount of time kids in the U.S. spend in front of screens — an astonishing average of seven hours daily by age eight — and the ages at which such exposure poses the most risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics, The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, and others urge families to develop healthy practices around entertainment and educational screen practices. In 2013, the AAP released a policy statement in the journal Pediatrics in which the organization laid out the following recommendations for children’s screen time:

  • Ages 0-2: No screen time at all. Babies and toddlers learn by interacting with parents and other caregivers; in fact, studies show screen time can delay learning to speak. Creative, non-screen play is especially important for toddlers’ intellectual development.
  • Ages 3 through high school: No more than two hours a day spent on entertainment-related screens. Further, the AAP recommends that families select “positive, prosocial” forms of screen entertainment, such as Sesame Street for young children or movies with useful messages for pre-teens and teens.
  • Televisions and electronic devices with Internet connectivity should be used in common household areas.
  • Families should share meals and turn electronics off during meal times.

In 2014, Professor Patricia Greenfield and researchers conducted a simple experiment that demonstrated that sixth-graders who spent just five days at a camp without access to screens improved their ability to read facial expressions above that of their screen-watching peers. While the subject sample was small, the conclusions were consistent with commonly-given recommendations that children spend more time experiencing in-person interactions to develop strong social and emotional skills.

As children reach the middle and high school years, their educational and peer social involvement with screens typically increases. While this is to be expected — and doesn’t raise the same concerns as time spent in front of the television — parents still need to factor increased screen time into their overall guidelines for their children. Raising healthy, social, curious kids requires a range of experiences that extend far beyond those available electronically. Balancing the strengths of these different experiences demands active engagement by parents, and results in rewards that enrich the entire family.

Sources:

Children and TV: Limiting your child's screen time (2013, August 16). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved January 21, 2015.

Dobner, J. (2014, September 1) Family, Screen Time Tied to Kids' Success: Study. Retrieved January 21, 2015.

Kaneshiro, N., MD, (2013, May 10) Screen time and children: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 21, 2015.

Policy Statement: Children, Adolescents, and the Media. (2013). Pediatrics. Retrieved January 28, 2015.

Selected Research on Screen Time and Children (n.d.). Retrieved January 21, 2015.

Summers, J. (2014, August 28) Kids And Screen Time: What Does The Research Say?. Retrieved January 21, 2015.

Turner, C. (2014, September 30) Kids And Screen Time: Cutting Through The Static. Retrieved January 21, 2015.

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