Screens are hard to avoid—and, as anyone who’s ever binge-watched reality television knows—even harder to resist. Still, it’s a good idea to limit little kids’ access to mobile devices, televisions, videos, and computers, since heavy screen use is linked with developmental delays in young children.
For instance, among infants, exposure to 60 or more minutes of media a day is associated with cognitive (thinking), language, and motor delays. Other studies have found that the more screen time toddlers have, the poorer their ability to regulate behavior and manage emotions and attention.
Why is excessive screen time so damaging to young children? Researchers have proposed some possible reasons: More media exposure for babies usually means decreased interactions with caregivers and less creative play, both of which are crucial for development. In addition, the fast pace of many television shows (still kids’ major source of screen time) may command attention that would otherwise go towards developing important skills.
How much screen time do (and should) kids have?
Children 0-8 spend an average of just under two hours a day on screens, with older children using more digital media than younger ones. Among tweens and teens, average screen time climbs to over 4.5 hours, and over 6.5 hours a day, respectively.
The totals exceed the amounts recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which advises that children under two avoid all screens, except for video chat applications like Skype. The AAP also suggests two-to-five-year-olds use screens only with a caregiver, and for no more than an hour a day. Parents of older children should restrict and monitor their kids’ media access, making sure they get at least an hour of exercise a day, and 8-12 hours of sleep at night.
Moms weigh in on screens, behavior, and sleep
Even if you limit media use, you might still see its effects on your little ones. Huntington, New York mom of three Anina Monte says that during her four-year-old’s allotted screen time, “She becomes absorbed in her television show, and cannot break out of it—I can’t talk to her, can’t get her to listen. When it’s time to transition her to dinner, or bed, she always begs to continue watching.”
She adds, “Now, I remember doing the same thing when I was her age. I know this isn’t new kid behavior,” caused by digital media; “It’s normal.” But Monte’s found that if her daughter’s been listening to music, outside with her brother, or playing in her room rather than watching television, “It’s a lot easier to get her to wash up and get ready” for dinner or bed.
Speaking of bed, screen time just before lights out can also inhibit sleep in children. That’s because screens emit a blue light that can interfere with the body’s release of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleepiness. “I used to let my kids watch TV before they went to bed, thinking it relaxed them,” recalls Allison Weinger, a university research scholar and mom of three-and-a-half year-old twins in New York City. But “It was a nightmare getting my son in[to bed] and getting him to fall asleep.”
Then, a parent coach recommended Weinger cut out the bedtime TV. She was skeptical, but “I tried it, and the first few nights he went straight to bed and went to sleep right away.” Currently, “It's a lot more manageable than before…. He has the time to play (with and without us), and it just feels more tranquil.” She adds, “Eliminating TV before bed gives you more family time.”
One more reason to limit screens
Finally, while letting your kid scroll through your Instagram feed may fend off boredom (and whining), being bored can offer unexpected benefits: “There’s a close link between originality and creativity and the spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are idle,” observes cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Jonathan Smallwood in Manoush Zomorodi’s book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self.
“In other words,” Zomorodi explains, “you have to be bored to be brilliant.” That’s something to keep in mind the next time your seven-year-old requests an iPhone.
Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in City Limits, Paste, Library Journal, and other titles. She lives in New York City with her husband, son, and many toy trucks.