How much screen time is too much for children?

The answer to this question is a hot topic among parents, childcare professionals and experts in child development.

In 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics released the guidelines for parents of young children recommending that they:

  • Limit children’s total media time (with entertainment media) to no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day.
  • Discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.

Since 2010, several countries such as Australia and Canada have introduced national guidelines for 0-5 year-olds recommending screen time and sedentary behaviour limits for young children. These guidelines both recommend:

  • For children under 2 years, screen time (e.g., TV, computer, electronic games) is not recommended. That is, children younger than 2 years of age should not spend any time watching television or using other electronic media.
  • For children 2 to 5 years of age, watching television and the use of other electronic media (DVDs, computer and other electronic games) should be limited to less than one hour per day. Less is better.
  • For healthy growth and development, caregivers should minimise the time infants, toddlers and preschoolers, spend being sedentary during waking hours. This includes prolonged sitting or being restrained (e.g., stroller, high chair) for more than one hour at a time. That is, young children should not be sedentary, restrained, or kept inactive, for more than one hour at a time, with the exception of sleeping.

In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the evidence around screen time for children under 2 years confirming their previous recommendation:

“This updated policy statement provides further evidence that media—both foreground and background—have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children younger than 2 years. Thus, the AAP reaffirms its recommendation to discourage media use in this age group. This statement also discourages the use of background television intended for adults when a young child is in the room. Although infant/toddler programming might be entertaining, it should not be marketed as or presumed by parents to be educational.”

However, at around the same time there was a digital innovation that would dramatically change young children’s screen time - mobile touch-screen computer tablets were released, and subsequently an explosion in the number of apps aimed at young children are now available. Screen time was no longer only a sedentary and cognitively-passive activity; it could include appropriately-developed activities that were interactive, cognitively challenging and educational.

These possibilities had some experts re-thinking screen time recommendations for children under 2 years, and questioning potential differences between young children’s mindless consumption of developmentally-inappropriate television programs, compared to the potential developmental benefits that could result from young children’s use of educational activities on mobile touch-screen technologies.

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the evidence and revised screen time guidelines for young children. These guidelines are similar to those from Australia and Canada, and recommend the following:

  • Avoid digital media use (except video-chatting) in children younger than 18 to 24 months.
  • For children ages 18 to 24 months of age, if parents want to introduce digital media, they should choose high-quality programming and use media together with their child. Solo media use should be avoided in this age group.
  • For children 2 to 5 years of age, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programming, view with children, help children understand what they are seeing, and help them apply what they learn to the world around them.

Much research is still needed, but screen time recommendations for young children have continued to be the topic of debate between health promoters, educators, and child development experts.

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This article is from the free online course:

Preventing Childhood Obesity: an Early Start to Healthy Living

University of Wollongong