Screen Time in Early Childhood

When recently asked by a group of parents what differences I saw in child development and parenting over the past 10 years, I answered that the most significant change I see is in media use. The daily amount of time we spend on-screen has continued to increase for both adults and children of all ages. As a pediatrician, screen time is a topic I discuss with patients and families at every well child visit. The most common response to the question of how much time a child spends per day on media is “too much”.

Reducing media time can be a difficult task once patterns have developed. Finding a stopping point for children often produces tantrums and meltdowns. Kids with more challenging behaviors tend to have even higher screen time use since the devices are so effective at keeping them engaged and preoccupied. While screen time may seem helpful in the short-term, it comes at a cost. Time spent on screen reduces parent-child interactions and misses an opportunity to develop problem-solving tools. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has voiced concern that consistently using media as a soothing tool could cause children to have trouble with or be unable to learn how to regulate their own emotions.

Brain development in early childhood thrives with hands-on, unstructured social play. The time of early childhood development, between the ages of 0-5 years, is pivotal for language, social-emotional skills, and cognitive skills. Overuse of digital media can hinder development and cause additional health concerns for young children. After careful study, the AAP has developed their own set of guidelines for media use. These guidelines can give parents a starting point in knowing how to help their children develop healthy habits in a world filled with seemingly endless sources of digital media.

0-2 years old

For children under 18 months, screen time is discouraged other than video chatting, based on studies that have looked at how children learn from a 2D screen compared to the preferred in-person interactive approach. If media is introduced to children at 18-24 months old, choose high-quality programming that is an interactive experience with parent and child. Allowing children to use media by themselves at this age is discouraged as toddlers learn best from interactive experiences with caregivers.

2-5 years old

For children 2-5 years of age, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programming and watch it with your child. Interacting with children during media use is important in this stage of child development. High-quality media choices that have educational value include programs by Common Sense Media, PBS Kids, and Sesame Workshop.

Possible Negative Effects

When electronics and media are overused in early childhood, this can lead to:

  • Increased risk of obesity
  • Lower social interaction
  • Less interactive play with parents or caregivers

Reducing media time gives children the opportunity to engage in other activities that are important for early development. Be mindful of your own media use as well. Research has shown that parents with heavy mobile use have less verbal (or even nonverbal) interactions with their children.

Help! What do I do now?

  1. Create a media use plan.
    Check out this helpful website to get started creating a plan that is tailored to your family: www.healthychildren.org/MediaUsePlan
  2. Develop screen-free zones and times.
    Pediatricians recommend keeping bedrooms, mealtimes, and parent–child playtimes screen-free. Children should also avoid screen time 1 hour before bedtime.
  3. Use media together.
    For children under the age of 5, using media with a parent or caregiver can enhance their learning experience through interaction and asking questions. The key to remember is that interactive experiences increase your child’s ability to learn in any activity.

To learn more about guidelines for screen time or if you have additional questions, please speak with your pediatrician. Additional resources and information can be found at www.healthychildren.org.

Categories: Screen Time, Toddlers
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