6 min

How screen time affects children

Introduction

Nearly half of all children 8 and under have their own smartphone or tablet and spend an average of 2.25 hours a day online, according to Common Sense Media.

Early data from a landmark National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that began in 2018 indicates that children who spent more than two hours a day on screen-time activities scored lower on language and thinking tests, and some children with more than seven hours a day of screen time experienced thinning of the brain’s cortex, the area of the brain related to critical thinking and reasoning.

Scientists are not sure what the data means yet, but can hypothesise that screens could inhibit certain aspects of a child’s development by narrowing their focus of interest and limiting their other means of exploration and learning. If younger children spend most of their time engaging with digital devices and screens, it can be hard to get them to engage in non-electronic activities, such as playing with toys or exploring outdoors, which develops their imagination and creativity, as well as playing with other children that helps develop social skills. Interacting almost exclusively with digital screens would be like working out a single set of muscles on your body and nothing else. That muscle would be well developed, but at the expense of the rest of the body and overall fitness.

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How does excessive screen time affect early childhood development?

Young children, especially those under the age of 3, develop rapidly. Young children learn by exploring their environment and watching the adults in their lives and then imitating them. Excessive screen time may inhibit a child’s ability to observe and experience the typical everyday activities they need to engage with in order to learn about the world, leading to a kind of “tunnel vision,” which can be detrimental to overall development, affecting their ability to learn new things, as well as how they interact with others and developing language skills.

Studies have shown that children under 2 learn less from a video than when learning from another person. And, even though children start watching TV from 6 months, their understanding of content does not generally occur until after the age of 2. As much as they’re fascinated by what’s on the screen, they’re not actually learning from it.

Language development expands rapidly between 1½ to 3 years of age, and studies have shown that children learn language best when engaging and interacting with adults who are talking and playing with them. There is also some evidence that children who watch a lot of television during the early elementary school years perform less well on reading tests and may show slight attention deficits.

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How does screen time impact a child’s language and social skills?

Extensive research shows that engaging in reciprocal conversation with children is extremely important for language development and social interaction. The back-and-forth “conversation,” sharing facial expressions and reactions in real life, rather than “passive” listening or one-way interaction with a screen improves language and communication skills in young children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends avoiding screens for children younger than 18 to 24 months, except when video calls with family. The AAP also recommends limiting screen use for preschool children, ages 2 to 5, to just one hour a day of high-quality programming (think Blue Planet).

When something needs to get done around the house or you need some time out, it’s fine to have young children engaged and entertained. Advice to parents or guardians, it’s best to turn on some educational programming so you can actively engage with them about what they’re watching and learning. Or something that’s fun and shows characters interacting and playing cooperatively to model good social skills.

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“Research suggest that screens could inhibit certain aspects of a child’s development by narrowing their focus of interest and limiting their means of exploration and learning.”

PROFESSOR DAWN SIM, CONSULTANT OPHTHALMIC SURGEON AT MOORFIELDS EYE HOSPITAL, CO-FOUNDER AT MTHK.

Suggested screen time use by age
  • Avoid use of screens other than video calling family and friends.
  • Limit screen time to 1 hour per day of high quality programmes. Parents should watch this with their children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • Place limits on the time spent on the various types of media. Screen time should not affect or replace sleep, physical activity or other essential activities. Also note that at this young age, they will model the behavior of their parent(s). If they see that you’re behind a screen all day, they’ll see that as acceptable and the norm.
  • Designate media free times together, such as meal times, bedtime and family time, as well as media free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • How does screen time affect children’s sleep?

    Our production of melatonin (sleep hormone) is released when the sun starts to set. Blue light from screens can inhibit our melatonin production, which affects our circadian rhythm and our sleep. Watching TV or playing games also keeps our brains and bodies more alert and activated and less ready for sleep. (Tablets and smartphones will, in general, suppress melatonin production more than TVs because the screen (and the blue light emitted) is closer to our faces.)

    According to one study, infants 6 to 12 months old who were exposed to screens in the evening showed significantly shorter nighttime sleep than those who had no evening screen exposure.

    For preteens and teenagers, excessive use of screens late at night will affect their sleep. Too much time spent on social media as well as lack of sleep can affect behavior and cognitive performance and interfere with learning. It has also been shown that excessive screen time and sleep deprivation are linked to obesity, which in turn can affect self-esteem and lead to social isolation and more screen time.

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