How Much is Too Much?

Since the emergence of telephones in the late 1800’s, technology and its affects on society have been a recurring topic of debate. Today’s concerns about screen time and its affects on child development are nothing new and yet here we are. So how much is too much? Unfortunately, the research is still limited and cannot indicate concrete short and long term effects. Some research has indicated that increased screen time has negative effects on developmental measures, such as communication skills, problem solving, and social interactions among younger children. Some suggest that screen time is here to stay, and we need to help children navigate it so they do not neglect other functions of childhood or watch content that is unhealthy, such as graphic violence. What science can tell us is that face-to-face interactions are imperative for healthy development and sometimes technology gets in the way. Despite ambiguity in the research, we have been given a few guidelines regarding how much screen time young children should be exposed to. The World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics produced similar recommendations. In a nutshell, children under 18 months old should not have any screen time. Children 18-24 months can start to be introduce to high quality programming with their parents watching with them. Children 2-4 years old should only have 1 hour of screen time per day. WHO also suggests that children 1-5 year old should get at least 3 hours of physical activity per day and 10 hours of sleep per night. The main concern with screen time currently is that it takes away from other activities, such as sleep, exercise, social interactions, and other opportunities for learning and development. Content is also a concern; educational programming can be beneficial for children, especially with parents watching and asking questions to help foster learning. Unfortunately, children are often exposed to screen time with little educational or developmental benefit. So what can you do to ensure your children are not overusing screen time? It is our job as the adults to help children wisely choose which programs to watch or games to play and for how long.
  • Keep playing with your kids. Play changes as children grow but that does not mean we should stop playing. Find out what your older children are interested now and engage in those activities. Maybe jigsaw puzzles, card games, or sports are their go to activity. Continuing to engage your children in play is an effective way to increase their interest in device-free activities.
  • Just Say No. Create limits for devices and stick to them. You are the parent and it is your job to help your children make healthy choices while they grow and learn. They may push back at first but they will soon get used to the new rules and adapt to them.
  • Let them be bored. We are all so uncomfortable with boredom. Even a couple empty minutes in the elevator are often filled with checking email on one’s phone. Boredom is not the enemy and can often lead to increased creativity and learning. Brain scans showed that when children had to sit with boredom their brain activity started to light up like crazy; they were coming up with new creative ideas for play and to entertain themselves.
  • Get their input early. Before introducing children to their new phones, game systems, etc – get together and discuss what the guidelines for use will be. Then if they start to request additional time you can be prepared to remind them of the rules they agreed to.
  • Walk the Walk. Put down your phone. Turn off the TV. Start interacting with the family with the devices put away. Not only will you be more available to your children but you will be setting a good example.
  • Plan in advance. Decide ahead of time which TV shows to watch and keep the TV turned off at other times. Plan physical activity into the day. Assign videogame time. Avoid the struggle ahead of time by planning and having the children agree to the plan.
Now that you have limited the screen time, what do you do instead? It will vary family to family depending on everyone’s interests. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Game night
  • Kick a ball around or shoot some baskets
  • Take the dog for a walk
  • Go to the nearby park
  • Turn on some music – dance or karaoke
  • Get on the floor and play
  • Plan a trip to a museum or zoo
  • Do some active chores together
Limiting screen time can seem like a daunting task these days. Sometimes it is just easier to hand a crying child the tablet and let them soothe with a game or video. There are times when extra screen time may be appropriate, like on the weekends or holidays. When you are trying to figure out how much is too much, just ask yourself “Is my child missing out on opportunities for learning and growth?” If the answer is yes, take a look again at the suggestions above and see which may work for your family.