With all of the most innovative technology at our fingertips, and at the fingertips of our children, how much screen time is too much?
According to Michigan State University (MSU), “more than 40 percent of infants under 5 months of age are watching some form of video”, be it Baby Einstein or whatever program parents or siblings are watching in the background. By age two, more than 90 percent of children are engaging with screen media on a regular basis. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, states that “the typical preschool child in the United States watches about four and half hours of television a day.” This means that roughly 20 – 30 percent of their waking hours are spent in front of a screen. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cites that the amount of daily screen time school age children engage with ranges from an average of eight hours for eight to ten year olds to eleven hours for teenagers.
These statistics should not be that surprising, considering how many television programs, games, and apps are now geared towards young children. According to more than 50 studies conducted since the late 1990s, too much screen time has several negative side effects (MSU). “Excessive media use has been associated with obesity, lack of sleep, school problems, aggression, and other behavior issues (AAP).” A study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has also found that “too much time online may even inhibit a child’s ability to recognize emotions (Time).”
Infants and toddlers are most susceptible to the damage too much screen time can have and the AAP strongly suggests that children under three years of age not engage in screen time at all.
Infants are born with 2,500 synapsis per neuron, but by age three, children have about 15,000 synapses per neuron. This “wiring” of the brain comes to an end by age three and cannot be duplicated later in life. When young children are engaged with screen time instead of play experiences, their brains are not stimulated to form these critical connections (MSU).
When babies are engaging face-to-face with another person they pick-up on language, modeled activities, and real time experiences that they cannot discern from characters on a screen (Marjorie Hogan). Many of the television shows meant to engage young children claim to have educational benefits and present their information and pictures in a fast-paced, unsequential style that can be jarring for a child who is still learning how to process information in real time.
Our brains evolved… to process things that happen in real time… the more rapidly sequenced the scenes, the more distracting it is. It’s taxing to the brain to process things that happen so fast even though we’re capable of doing it… We see that after watching fast-paced shows… children don’t function as well. We don’t see that with things like block play, reading or drawing, all of which happen in real time (Dr. Dimitri Christakis).
More than this, “research shows language development, reading skills, short-term memory, sleep and attention span are all impacted by television viewing in these critical early years, (MSU).”
In a world where media is everywhere and it seems impossible to escape, how do we limit the amount time our children spend in front of a screen?
- The AAP suggests that parents not only educate themselves about the effects of a heavy digital diet, but on how to make good choices in media consumption for themselves, model this behavior, and on how they can educate their children to do the same.
- Pay attention to the programs and screen activities with which your child interacts. Is the program presented in real time or is it more or less colors flashing across the screen?
- Take the time to co-view programs with your child and engage in a meaningful conversation about what they are watching in order to make real life connections.
- Screens should be kept out of children’s rooms and curfews should be created for media usage.
- Limit entertainment screen time to less than one or two hours per day. Discourage screen time for children under two years of age altogether.
With all of this being said, media, like cake, is not inherently bad; the consumption of it just needs to be monitored. “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 (Marjorie Hogan).” In a time when new technology is introduced like rapid fire, we do not want to shelter our children from these tools; but we should teach them how to use them effectively.
For more information about screen time and the effect it has on children, please click on the following links:
- TV for Toddlers, Michigan State University
- Managing Media: We Need a Plan, AAP
- Kids and Screen Time: What Does the Research Say?, NPR
- Q&A: Blocks, Play, Screen Time, and the Infant Mind, NPR
- Blocks of Fun! 44 Block Activities for Preschoolers, Hands on as We Grow
- This Place Just Made It Illegal to Give Kids Too Much Screen Time, Time.com