Ever since televisions first entered our homes, parents have grappled with the question of how much screen time is best for their children.
While screen time can be educational, too much of it can impede child development and invite a range of serious health issues.
“The recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics is for a maximum of two hours of screen time a day, and that includes TV, tablets, phones and computers,” says Laurie Steitler Panzer, a physician assistant who’s the mother of two preadolescent boys. For children under age 3, she continues, the recommendation is no more than one hour a day.
Panzer and her husband, Hadley, try to limit 12-year-old Alex and 9-year-old Ellison to 30 minutes of screen time after school and 90 minutes more in the evening, but that 30 minutes often turns into 45 minutes or an hour.
“It just sucks them in,” says Panzer, who works at the Family Health Center of Asheville. “We try to be flexible, but we have to set limits.”
Nicole Evans, a doctor of osteopathic medicine at MAHEC Family Practice, cites two studies of the same group of 2,441 children in Calgary, Canada, that found significant developmental differences at ages 3 and 5 among those who used electronics for varying amounts of time.
“The studies found differences in … the ability to bond with caregivers, in language and in cognitive development,” says Evans, who’s the mother of a 3-year-old.
And as screens become ever more ubiquitous, it gets that much harder to limit a child’s exposure to them.
In 2011, about 10% of children under age 2 had access to phones, tablets or computer screens, says Evans; just two years later, that number had jumped to 38%. At the same time, children ages 8 and under went from 30% with access to 70%.
“By now, I’m sure it’s pretty universal,” she says. “Most children have access to phones, tablets and computers, not to mention television.”
As of 2017, a study by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, found that 98% of children ages 8 and younger came from homes with internet-connected devices and spent more than two hours a day in front of screens.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the average American child spends seven hours a day in front of some form of electronic media and that two-thirds of children ages 6 and under live in homes where the television is left on at least half the time, even when no one is watching it. In one-third of homes, the TV is left on all or nearly all the time, and the children in those homes appear to read less and to be slower in learning to read.
Too much screen time during the preschool years may be the most harmful, says Evans, because young children’s brains are developing most rapidly then, and they need to be exploring their environment and interacting with others.
Screen time right before bed, she notes, can also disrupt sleep, because the type of light emitted by a tablet or phone interferes with the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep cycle.
“Bedtime reading should always be from a real book,” says Evans.
Those adverse effects don’t end when children start school, however. Most schools use computers in class, and students are encouraged to use the internet for research. “Kids’ use of computers in school adds to their screen time, and parents need to be aware of that,” stresses Evans.
Panzer agrees. “We see increased obesity, as children get less exercise. I make sure my boys get outside and are active.” She and her husband take the kids hiking regularly, and they go kayaking at least a couple of times each summer. “We’re out a lot,” she says. “We want to set the right example, so we take part in activities with them.”
Family circumstances can also be a factor.
“I have a partner to help with my child,” notes Evans. “I don’t know how single parents manage. You get home and you have to cook dinner, so you set the children up with their computers or tablets or the TV.” But this is often unsupervised screen time, which is less likely to be beneficial. “There are some 80,000 educational apps for phones and tablets,” says Evans. “Some are great, some are terrible, and unfortunately, it’s up to parents to sort it all out.”
At all ages, increased screen time has been associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A 2019 study using data from longitudinal studies of children in Canada found various adverse effects in kids of all ages, including obesity, cardiovascular problems, sleep issues and even increased aggression.
In addition to learning and developmental impacts, too much screen time can cause physical problems such as sore necks, headaches, eyestrain and repetitive stress injuries from texting.
But the news isn’t all bad. A 2015 article on the Cleveland Clinic website tells parents how they can use social media to help children learn useful fact-checking skills and how to combat online bullying.
Yet it’s still up to parents to keep track of screen time and of what their children are reading and watching.
Or as Panzer puts it, “We have to be in charge.”