Screen Time: It's Not All Bad News

Why screen time isn't as terrible as it's made out to be.

Posted Jan 14, 2020

I'll admit that the first time I Googled "screen time for toddlers," I was attempting to assuage my own guilt about the amount of time my daughter was beginning to spend watching nursery rhymes. Every new-age parent has been there. Toddlers need something to do while parents work, and so parents turn on the television for a while. They then rush back, turn the TV off, and then perform said Google search—which is a bad, bad idea, if what they really wanted was something to make them feel better about themselves.

There's tons of screen time research out there, and at first glance (and maybe even the second or third glance), it all seems like terrible news. From effects on development to those on sleep routines, parents are likely to come out of that Google search feeling horrible, and a tad afraid.

I'm here to tell you that it isn't all bad news. Given how ubiquitous screens have become, it probably makes some sense to figure out the best ways to get our children to interact with them. And luckily for us, there is some research out there on how some kinds of screen time are better than others; and also some scientific advice on how parents can help their children use this technology wisely and probably even to their benefit.

An increasing number of pediatricians and researchers are beginning to believe that it is not exactly the amount of time spent on screens but the kind of screen time that really matters. Scientists have identified two kinds of screen time—active and passive. Active screen time involves the child engaging either mentally or physically with the content being shown. A child might be actively engaging while, say, playing a game on their XBOX or watching a documentary. Too much passive screen time, which by definition is sedentary and mindless, is probably not the best idea. However, the negative effects of too much screen time (including attentional deficits) begin to show up only at very high amounts of screen time (around seven hours a day).

Here are a few of the most useful pieces of advice I've found on screen time:

  • For the younger children (<5 years old), parents watching educational programming along with the children and interacting with them as they watch increases the learning.
  • Combining touch screen use with active play could mitigate some of the risks associated with sedentary screen time.
  • Background television should be minimized as much as possible, given that it distracts from play and can have negative repercussions for attention and executive function in younger children.

A number of experts in the UK have disputed the strict screen time limit recommendations by the WHO, their major concerns being that not all screen time is bad for children and that the evidence to restrict time spent on screens is sketchy at best.

Our daughter is still a toddler, so we try and restrict her to an hour or so of screen time a day. But we don’t fret too much if it's just one of those days when we end up overshooting that time limit a little bit. Too much passive screen time is bad for anyone, and probably more so for little children. WHO's guidelines on screen time are based on sedentary screen time that interferes with physical activity.

As long as my daughter is active, learning a lot and sleeping well, I'm not going to bother too much with all the alarming "research" out there. I might worry a little if her time on screens is detracting from her interest in books, but until that is the case, there is a lot to be gained (for us as parents as well!) by her watching "one, two buckle my shoe" or "five little ducks" for some time each day. 

References

  Sweetser, P., Johnson, D., Ozdowska, A., & Wyeth, P. (2012). Active versus Passive Screen Time for Young Children. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 37(4), 94–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/183693911203700413  

Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world. (2017). Paediatrics & Child Health, 22(8), 461–477. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/pxx123