As a parent, you’ve likely heard that you shouldn’t give your child too much screen time.
Pre-pregnancy you may have even vowed to never allow screen time at all—times were simpler then…
But how much is too much?
Why is it important to limit the amount of time your toddler spends watching TV or playing a game?
Is there such a thing as healthy screen time for kids?
And is screen addiction something you should be aware of?
We’re breaking down the stats and sorting through the studies to give you the low down on your digital little helper.
In this article: 📝
- How does screen time affect children’s development?
- How does too much screen time affect a child’s behavior
- How much screen time is OK for kids?
- What is healthy screen time?
- What can I substitute for screen time?
How does screen time affect children’s development?
Let’s dive straight in, shall we?
Recent studies examining children’s brains—and there’s quite a few—are changing the way pediatricians and developmental experts view screen time for kids.
And for good reason.
A 2019 study found a link between increased screen time and underdeveloped white brain matter in children.
In some kids, white brain matter hadn’t developed at all—a scary thought when you consider the function of white matter in children’s cognitive ability.
Mental control, self-regulation, literacy skills, and language are all developed in your child’s white matter.
Sure enough, the same study demonstrated lower levels of literacy and language in the very same kids they tested.
But screen time doesn’t just have an impact on your child’s future academic performance.
A 2022 study found that children who had more than one hour of screen time per day showed more vulnerability in their physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development.
And rich variety of research has linked screen time to:
- Poor socio-emotional outcomes
- Speech delays
- Attention problems
- Lower executive functioning, such as trouble with impulse control, problem-solving, and memory
- Academic problems
- Sleep duration and quality
- Poor social interactions
The verdict is in: children who have a lot of screen time are simply not making the same critical connections and learning as those who do not.
But that’s not to say that screen time has no place in your kid’s little world.
It just requires a few necessary limitations to ensure they’re reaping the benefits.
How does too much screen time affect a child’s behavior
Answering “is screen time bad for kids” is not as cut-and-dry as you might think (or hope).
Because there are some benefits.
One study links moderate screen time—up to two hours per day—to slightly higher levels of psychosocial functioning.
And another study links specifically-designed video games to enhanced cognitive capabilities such as critical thinking, planning, and spatial ability.
It’s also important to note that other factors are also at play with increased screen time and poor development: the quality of the exposure, whether it’s interactive or background television, and if the parent is actively involved.
It turns out excessive background television can result in poorer language development since it disrupts playtime and parent-child interactions.
And since their full attention isn’t being paid to it, children aren’t gaining any learning benefits from its presence.
On the other side of the spectrum, too much one-on-one screen time engagement could increase the chances of screen addiction.
And the behavioral effects of screen addiction in kids can be unsettling.
Symptoms like loss of interest in other activities, withdrawal symptoms, lying about use, inability to stop screen time despite negative feelings, and irritability are not uncommon in children with screen addiction.
And total screen dependency can lead to feelings of guilt and loneliness, anxiety, insomnia, dishonesty, and decreased empathy.
So where to strike the balance?
How much screen time is OK for kids?
So, the impact of screen time on your child is clear, but how much screen time is too much for kids?
No matter the possible benefits of quality screen time, experts recommend zero screen time for infants under two because nothing trumps real human interaction for baby’s developmental milestones.
Toddlers between 18 and 24 months should have very limited time in front of a screen, watching only high-quality programs alongside their parents.
And for those under five, non-educational screen time should be kept to one hour per day (or up to three on a weekend day).
After all, it’s during these first five years that a child’s brain is making rapid connections and developing the most.
But before you rush for the remote to enjoy that well-deserved pocket of peace and quiet—or family movie night—there’s one last factor to keep in mind: you.
How parents interact with their screens has a huge impact on whether a child develops screen addiction or not.
And it makes sense: you’re their greatest role model.
Being aware of your social media or screen media use can not only help your child develop healthy habits and behaviors—it can also promote your mental health.
A win-win, we say.
What is healthy screen time?
Not all screen time is created equal.
And we’re not just talking about quantity.
As tempting as it is to just sit in front of the TV and zone out together (we get it), opting for a high-quality educational show is always the better option for healthy screen time.
Especially when they’re still quite young.
Discussing what is happening or how the characters are feeling can also help your child learn new things and make connections between their lives and what they’re watching—all positive steps toward emotional intelligence.
Another example of healthy screen time could be playing an educational game with your toddler on your tablet.
You can talk about the different things the game is trying to teach them and help them learn from any mistakes they might make.
The common theme of healthy screen time for kids is that it is active, not passive.
And that you are present.
Take some time to research some educational shows or apps that are beneficial for them (and not grating for you).
You can always ask the moms on Peanut for their recommendations and honest reviews—as real and unfiltered as you like.
Eventually, your child will mature enough to take control of their screen time and form their own entertainment preferences that they’ll happily watch solo.
This is great news for reclaiming back some you-time, but it also means evolving how you manage their consumption.
Remember, it’s not just quantity you have to watch out for: advertisements, misleading information, and negative stereotypes can have a serious impact too.
Not least of all, poor self-image or body image issues.
Forming a solid screen-time plan early that centers on awareness, leading by example, and encouraging conversations around safety and privacy will all go towards instilling healthy screen-time habits that benefit your child long-term.
What can I substitute for screen time?
Look, we get that screen time also gives you some time back to recharge and regroup or, you know, have an enjoyable moment for yourself—this is hugely important.
Sometimes a large part of parenthood feels like constantly balancing your well-being with your child’s development.
So, if you’re wondering how you’ll be able to keep them happy and occupied without the sweet lulls of Paw Patrol, thankfully, there are many developmentally-appropriate activities that your toddler will enjoy:
Coloring and crafts
One thing young children love to do is to color.
Great news, since coloring can help them foster their creativity, develop fine motor skills, and improve their focus.
The next time you want to reach for the tablet to keep them busy, consider grabbing a coloring book and some crayons instead.
Toddlers appreciate a good book, whether that’s ‘reading’ it themselves or listening to stories.
And reading to your toddler offers many of its own benefits too.
Reading exposes toddlers to new vocabulary words, provides them with new information about the world, can improve their memory and listening skills, and even help them form more inclusive perceptions.
The more you read to your toddler, the more they’ll see it as an exciting option to do during their own free time as well.
You may notice that your toddler will start picking up books on their own, sitting down, and ‘reading’ them.
Never underestimate the power of giving your toddler some blocks and encouraging them to build something.
This can help develop their fine motor skills and enhance their creativity.
You could even sit down with them and build something fun together, talking about each step of the process.
Getting fresh air and exercise will help keep your child alert and focused while boosting their curiosity.
It can also help them run off some of their excess energy, which should equate to better listening and focus once you’re back home.
As for what the outside activity should be, the sky is the limit!
Scavenger hunts, nature walks, drawing with chalks, hide and seek, picnics—we’ve a whole list of outdoor activities for kids.
Just picture the naps…
Even though not technically a screen, podcasts might feel like a bit of a cheat.
But podcasts could help improve your child’s listening skills and language development.
It’s also a great way to expose them to diverse topics and conversations.
Plus, there’s so many podcasts to choose from, with subjects like history, culture, climate, and nature.
Just remember to keep it educational and light for your little sponge.
Screen time for kids is complicated, but it has its place.
As long as time in front of a screen doesn’t become an integral part of your child’s world.
Prioritize having family meals together, sticking with consistent bedtimes, and incorporating other activities that can boost their development.
Your child’s curiosity is an amazing superpower, and you’re its greatest guide.
Choose wisely, plan ahead, and take the lead.
They’ll thank you for it—eventually.