Is Screen Time Ever OK for Children?

Recently a new study was released, looking into the impact of screen time on toddlers and preschoolers. Predictably; the mainstream media picked up on the research and were all reporting the perils of screen time and how it should be avoided as much as possible for young children. The trouble is, these dire warnings were not supported by the actual findings of the study.

The research looked a good sized sample, just under 2500 children, from Canada. It charted their screen time exposure (including television, tablet, computer and phones) between the ages of two and five years of age and looked at any specific impact on the child’s development. The latter was ascertained by questionnaires completed by parents, which aimed to assess gross motor skills (eg walking), fine motor skills (eg picking something up), communication skills, problem solving skills and social interaction skills. These results were then compared to the amount of screen time the children were exposed to and conclusions drawn. While more screen time did negatively impact on children’s development as they grew older, two factors influenced their development more: 1. the amount of time children were read to by their parents and 2. the amount of sleep they got. Or, in other words, while screen time undoubtedly can and does impact development, other factors can have much more influence. This is also presuming that the study findings were reliable and accurate, sadly many reliant upon parents completing questionnaires aren’t.

What I did find interesting about the research was that it helps parents to compare their child’s screen time to other children of a similar age. The researchers found that at age 2 years, the average child had 17 hours of screen time per week (or just under 2.5 hours per day), at 3 years, the average child had 25 hours of screen time per week (or just over 3.5 hours per day), and at 5 years of age, the average child had 11 hours of screen time per week (or just over 1.5 hours per day – presumably reflecting the fact that most children of this age attend school and so naturally are exposed to less screens during weekdays).

What can we take from this research? Personally, I think it reinforces my view that screen time isn’t to be avoided at all costs. We need to be realistic and realise that our world is very different now to the world we grew up in. Screens form a vital part of our lives now and most young children are exposed to at least two hours or more of it every day, despite some recommendations that it should be much more strictly limited. Screen time isn’t all bad, it very much depends on how much of it children have and what it is. For instance, a toddler spending 17 hours per week, sitting alone in front of a TV or tablet watching Peppa Pig isn’t so great, but 17 hours of watching animal, plane, car, dinosaur or tractor YouTube clips and playing educational apps, particularly when you are watching with the child and holding a conversation about what you’re watching, as part of a balanced lifestyle which incorporates plenty of hands on play and nature is just fine. The balance here is key. Watch with them, talk about what you see and make sure that screens don’t replace real books and reading together. Be mindful that screen usage doesn’t inhibit physical exercise, get up and move and even better – get outside! Turn the screens off when food comes out (even if they encourage a picky eater to eat more!). Watching television or tablets while eating can cause dis-ordered and non-mindful eating, which has been shown to increase the chances of children becoming obese as they grow (something discussed in my Gentle Eating Book if you’d like to read more). Finally, make sure that screens don’t inhibit your child’s sleep, by removing them two hours before bedtime. Screen time in the run up to bedtime has a doubly negative impact on sleep; the blue light from the screens inhibits melatonin – the hormone of sleep and the actual programmes themselves stimulate the brain in such a way that children find it hard to switch off.

Screen time can be an absolute life saver as a parent. Sometimes you need the down time, sometimes you need something to occupy them (something I’ve mentioned quite a few times in The Second Baby Book ) and I don’t think parents should be guilted into not relying on screens now and again. Especially, when the research doesn’t support a total ban, or over-restriction of screen time. As with most things, it’s HOW you use it and How often, plus what else you do that matters! Personally, my kids have all had plenty of screen exposure growing up and I don’t regret a thing!


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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