What Does Too Much Screen Time Do To Kids? Get The Facts

What does too much screen time do to kids?

What Does Too Much Screen Time Do To Kids?

Let's be honest. Sometimes, screen time is just what a parent needs.

Whether it's while grabbing dinner at a local restaurant, in the car, waiting on a doctor, or at the end of a very long day, giving your child access to a TV, tablet or phone offers a quick and easy way to make everyone happy. But is it always the best choice?

“Moderation is key to many aspects of a healthy lifestyle, and this includes moderating screen time,” explains Cari Whitlock, HYM Licensed Clinical Psychologist. “Screen time is an essential reality today for adults and kids, and it's not realistic to eliminate it from our lives completely. However, it's important to always be cognizant that screen time takes away from human interaction and physical activity which are vital to maintain a healthy mind and body.”

Why is screen time a concern for parents?

Screen time is a concern for parents both because of the amount of time kids of all ages spend on screens. Moreover, screen time can become an issue because of the quality of what your child/adolescent is interacting with on those screens, and what crucial activities screen time is replacing. It's important to note that screen time isn't just TV; it's also time spent on computers, game consoles, phones and tablets accessing video games, the Internet, social media and apps.

According to a recent report by Common Sense Media, while screen time has been trending up for years, we're seeing a dramatic increase since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. While screen time from 2015-1019 for tweens grew 3% and for teens 11%, screen time jumped 17% for both tweens and teens from 2019-2021. On average, teens aged 13 to 18 years are on screen 8:39 hours a day, and tweens aged 8 to 12 years 5:33 hours daily. Contrast that to the amount of time tweens and teens spend reading for pleasure at 34 minutes a day.

Screen time is also up for infants and toddlers. A report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that the average time toddlers spend on screen increased to more than 150 minutes – 2.25 hours a day – at 3 years old from 53 minutes at age 12 months.

How much screen time should my child have?

The amount of screen time recommended for your child depends on their age, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Child's Age

Total daily screen time

Birth to 18 months

Screen time should be limited to video chatting with an adult

18 to 24 months

Parents can introduce high-quality, educational programming, making sure a parent or caregiver is watching it with the child and talking to them about what they're watching.

2 to 5 years

Limit screen time to 1 hour/day of high-quality educational, social, non-violent programming during the week, and up to 3 hours daily on weekends. Parents/caregivers are still encouraged to watch programs with their kids.

5 to 8 years

Parents should still monitor a child's media usage, making sure to limit activities that include screens and encourage healthy habits like sleep and exercise.

9+ years

During the tween and teen years, it's important to have an open dialogue with your kids about screen time, and to remain aware and diligent about what they're watching and engaging with.

How can excessive screen time impact a child's physical health?

Regardless of your child's age, too much screen time can have a significant impact on their physical health, leading to issues with weight and sleep.

Decreased physical activity and obesity.

Increased screen time often correlates with kids being more sedentary and spending less time being active – which can contribute to weight gain and obesity. A 2022 clinical trial published in JAMA Pediatrics found that reducing a child's screen time led to a substantial increase in physical activity. Another study found that time spent on screen was a predictor of BMI (body mass index).

Sleep problems

A 2014 study published in Pediatrics found that Exposure to screens, particularly before bedtime, and the presence of a bedroom TV, can interfere with a child's sleep patterns and result in shorter sleep for infants to mid-childhood. The blue light emitted from screens can suppress the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, making it more difficult for children to fall asleep and stay asleep.

What are the mental health implications of excessive screen time?

Excessive screen time can negatively affect a child's mental health and brain function in various ways:

1. Impaired attention and executive functioning

Researchers found that infant screen use before age 2 can contribute to changes in brain activity that's crucial in the development of high-order cognitive skills related to attention and executive functioning.

2. Desensitizing the brain's reward system

Things like gaming and “likes” on social media have been shown to release dopamine (the “feel good” chemical) – and when your kid's reward pathways get overused, they need more stimulation to get the same reward.. Dopamine is also critical for focus and attention.

3. Increased anxiety

Excessive screen time can contribute to feelings of anxiety in children, particularly when it comes to social media and online interactions. For kids and teens who are uncomfortable in social situations, there's a high risk that screens become their escape, further exacerbating the social anxiety.

4. Higher risk of depression

Research has shown a correlation between increased screen time and higher rates of depression in children and adolescents.

How does too much screen time interfere with social-emotional development?

Social-emotional development is crucial during early childhood, and excessive screen time or browsing unsafe social media platforms can hinder this development.

“To ensure normal social-emotional development, young children need to interact with other kids to build appropriate social skills. They must build their imagination and creativity through art and play. They need exercise and time to explore outdoors. Screen time can't replace any of that,” emphasizes Whitlock.

Too much screen time at the expense of person-to-person interactions can:

1. Impair social skills

One study found that kids aged 3 to 6 years who spent more time on screens had fewer opportunities to engage in face-to-face interactions, which are essential for developing social skills such as empathy, cooperation, and conflict resolution.

2. Prevent the development of emotional regulation

Research on children aged 3 to 5 years old showed that excessive time on screens or using screens as a calming mechanism can make it more challenging for children to learn how to regulate their emotions, leading to increased frustration and emotional outbursts.

3. Weaken relationships

When children spend more time on screens, they have less time to connect with family and friends, which can weaken their support networks and negatively affect their emotional well-being.

Which areas of cognitive development are affected by too much screen time?

Excessive screen time can also interfere with a child's cognitive development, including:

1. Language development

Language development is rapid between 18 months to 3 years old, and studies confirm that children learn best when interacting with adults through play and talk. Children who spend more time on screens may miss out on essential conversations and interactions that help build their language skills. One study in particular looked at the impact of handheld devices on expressive language development. Up to 20 percent of the kids in the survey were averaging 28 minutes by 18 months. For every 30-minute increase in handheld screen time, there was an added 49% risk of expressive speech delay.

2. Literacy skills

As demonstrated in the longitudinal study from 2020, excessive screen time not only hindered emotional regulation but negatively impacted the development of mathematics and literacy (reading, writing and comprehension) in students ages 4 to 8 years old.

3. Critical thinking skills

Engaging in passive screen-based activities can reduce opportunities for children to develop problem-solving and critical thinking abilities.

How can parents effectively limit screen time for toddlers and young children?

To help mitigate the negative effects of excessive screen time, parents can implement the following strategies:

1. Set limits on screen time

Establish clear rules regarding screen time, and be consistent in enforcing them.

2. Prioritize educational and age-appropriate content

When allowing screen time, ensure that the content is educational and suitable for your child's age. Choose high-quality programs and applications that promote learning and active engagement.

3. Encourage alternative activities

Offer a variety of activities to keep your child engaged and entertained without screens. Encourage outdoor play, creative pursuits, reading, and spending quality time with family and friends.

4. Be a role model

Demonstrate healthy screen habits by limiting your own screen time and engaging in other activities. Your children are more likely to follow your example.

5. Establish screen-free zones and times

Create designated screen-free areas in your home, such as the dining room or bedrooms, and enforce screen-free times, such as during meals or before bedtime.

For more tips, check out this comprehensive Family Media Plan resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

How can parents help their children understand the importance of limiting screen time?

1. Open communication

Talk to your children about the potential negative effects of excessive screen time and explain why it is essential to limit their exposure.

2. Offer alternatives

Encourage your child to explore other activities and interests that do not involve screens. Help them discover new hobbies, sports, or creative outlets that they enjoy.

3. Encourage balance

Teach your child the importance of balancing screen time with other essential aspects of life, such as physical activity, social interactions, and self-care.

4. Monitor progress

Regularly review your child's screen habits and make adjustments as necessary. Praise their efforts to reduce screen time and engage in alternative activities.

  • “All the studies indicate that excessive screen time can have detrimental effects on toddlers' and young children's physical and mental health, social-emotional development, and cognitive development,” concludes Whitlock. “There's also overwhelming evidence that tweens and teens can also be negatively affected by too much screen time – though the impact is tied more to social and emotional issues, and mental health. As parents, we need to set limits on screen time, encourage educational and age-appropriate content, promote alternative activities and, most importantly to be good role models and ‘walk the talk'.”

Written by Dr. Cari Whitlock

Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist at Healthy Young Minds

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