Is screen time actually bad for Kids? 3 Expert tips on how to manage it as a parent.

Child watching TV

by Laura Healy |
Updated

Screens are an unavoidable reality of children's lives, whether at home, or school, children are increasingly using screens on a daily basis. But is screen time actually that bad for our children? As with everything in life, is screen time okay in moderation and when used for the right reasons, such as for education? The key perhaps is how to manage screen time. As parents we know that screens can be extremely helpful when you need half an hour to cook dinner, or put the washing away, or finish work, and your little one can watch their favourite show or play a game safely on their kid's tablet.

Raising kids is hard, we are constantly told they need to eat less processed food and more veggies, or to use reusable nappies instead of disposable, or not to soothe them to sleep, then also not to sleep train. Advice is often conflicting and confusing and screens, it seems, are the new big issue in parenting. Should our children use screens and how bad are they really?

As a child we were always told if you watch too much TV you will end up with square eyes, but now those warnings have developed and screen time is often frowned upon with suggestions it causes problems with sight, concentration and weight issues, as well as worries about online safety and access to social media. It seems we have come a long way from the joke about square eyes. But if managed and monitored, it can provide a great learning, or entertainment resource for our kids and let's face it, as they grow up, screens will inevitably be an important part of their life and work in our new digital world and so we need to prepare them and help them safely use screens.

What is screen time?

Screen time is any activity where your child is using a screen to play or learn. This includes a variety of devices including, TV, tablets, mobile phones, video games, smart watches and laptops or PCs. Internetmatters.org found that "30% of children spend 3-4 hours daily on their devices" while "68% of parents are worried about their children spending too much time online or on connected devices." So screen time is an issue that is problematic for parents but do we need to be concerned?

How much screen time is recommended for kids?

The World Health Organisation advises that "to grow up healthy, children need to sit less and play more." This suggests that the real problem with screen time is that typically children are sedentary while playing on their tablet or watching their favourite TV show. The WHO suggests that for children aged 2 and 3 "sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour." They also suggest, "when sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged," over screen time.

The WHO says, "currently, over 23% of adults and 80% of adolescents are not sufficiently physically active. If healthy physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep habits are established early in life, this helps shape habits through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood." Therefore the more we can encourage our children away from screens, and instead to play games which incorporate physical activity we are helping them establish healthier habits for life.

The NHS also suggest limiting screen time, however they advise, no more than 2 hours per day for children 2 and above. They say that "from 15 months, children may copy actions or words from TV, they are not actively able to learn language from TV until they are around 2½ years old." Therefore any educational benefits do not start until two years old and screen time should be limited. From age 2 the NHS suggest, "a limited amount of child-friendly screen time can be educational, but it’s important to ensure the content is appropriate for your child’s age."

Why is screen time bad for kids?

As the WHO suggests screen time can be linked with lack of physical activity which can lead to obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle, however, there other risks which affect children's physical and mental development.

Eye problems

Spec Savers advise that too much screen time can be harmful to the development of little one's eyes. Their Clinical Services Director, Giles Edmond, advises "the eyes can often become strained when focusing on screens for a long period of time. Symptoms to look out for in your children include eye discomfort, headaches, sore or tired eyes, difficulty focusing, dry eyes, blurred or double vision, and increased sensitivity to light." Spec Savers also list Myopia (short sightedness) saying that "children are twice as likely to experience myopia now than 50 years ago, which could also be linked to the increase in digital screen use during childhood, alongside an overall decrease in outdoor time." However, Spec Savers comment, "there is no definitive research to suggest that the blue light from digital screens can have a negative impact on your child’s eyes. What many people believe to be ‘blue light damage’ is usually just digital eye strain."

Irregular sleep patterns

NCT say that "several studies have reported strong and consistent evidence that longer screen use during the day is associated with worse sleep. This in turn might affect health and cognitive development." It has been reported that prolonged use of screens in children means they don't stay asleep for as long and it also takes them longer to fall asleep.

Lack of concentration

"TV moves very quickly (there is a change on the screen about every 6 seconds). Real life has a slower pace which helps children to develop their concentration skills," says the NHS and so too much screen time can impact a child's ability to concentrate on other activities.

Less time for real life learning

Using screens can reduce creative imagination because it decreases children's mental imagery skills. Experiencing things through a screen is not the same as experiencing it through real life and therefore children struggle to be creative or create their own mental images. The NHS suggest screens mean there is "less time for real life learning (e.g. sharing books and play), and interactions between you and your child," which are all experiences children need to develop their imaginative and creative skills.

Lack of time outside and lack of physical activity

It seems this is the biggest problem. Screen time normally happens indoors on the sofa and so children are both sedentary and indoors. It is vital children move to reduce problems like obesity and diabetes, but also that they spend time outside in natural light to reduce eye problems. Liat Hughes Joshi, author of 'How to Unplug Your Child,' says "if they're looking at screens a lot, they're missing out on other activities which are more developmentally beneficial and healthier...be it playing with a toy that requires the beginnings of creativity, or painting and arts and crafts or running around the garden or park getting some activity."

Are there any benefits to screen time?

It can feel scary reading studies suggesting the negative impact on screen time on your little one, especially when, as parents, we need to find time to get things done and screens are a great resource for learning too. So are there any benefits?

Yes, while too much screen time is not good for your little one (or you!) managing how much time your child spends looking at a screen, as well as monitoring the content, can provide benefits. Dr. Amanda Gummer from the Good Play Guide says, "let’s not demonise screen time but let’s make it work for everyone no matter what the age of your child. There are many ways screen time can be a force for good and even contribute to valuable family time during the holidays if a considered approach is taken."

There are many fun and educational appsfor kids and screens are also used in schools for learning and for homework with apps such as Times Tables Rock Stars being popular for home learning. TV can also be beneficial with NCT saying, "high quality TV programmes and apps aim to help toddlers with their language development, shape and colour recognition, numeracy and literacy. They also aim to promote problem solving, visual thinking and imagination." They also suggest, "babies and toddlers learn when adults interact with them alongside screen time," so screen time can actually be a nice activity to do together.

Interestingly there is proof that screen time supports development with NCT finding, "there’s an association between toddlers using interactive touchscreens earlier and them being able to make small, controlled movements – stacking blocks – earlier."

It seems that while screen time can have negative impacts, there are also many benefits and the key is moderation.

Tips to reduce kids screen time

While screen time is okay for short periods, it is important to limit the amount of time children spend watching TV, playing video games or looking at their tablet. LiatHughes Joshi has the following tips:

Create family tech rules: "For the youngest children, you're very much in control so set things up well from the start; what do you want your family tech rules to be? A limit of 30 minutes or an hour for really little ones is wise and realistic too because let's face it they can be really exhausting at this age and sometimes it's just practical for you as well as enjoyable for them."

Think about content: "I also recommend parents of children of all ages think about what they're watching not just 'how much'. For preschoolers, I'm a big fan of CBeebies for example as it's often educational and also advert free. For teens, there's a world of difference between mindlessly scrolling Instagram or TikTok and learning something brilliant online...I mean if your child spent three hours playing online chess or picking up a new language on Duolingo, what's not to like?"

Be a good screen time model: "Our children look to us for cues on how to behave. It's how they learn. If you're always glued to your phone, scrolling through dinner, ignoring them when they're trying to interact with you, what are they picking up?"

Can apps help parents control screen time?

Another way to manage your child's screen time is to use an app to set parental controls which will prevent them accessing inappropriate content, or certain websites or platforms, as well as setting time limits. Internetmatters.org suggests the app Screen Time Parental Control. They recommend this app because it "will let you monitor and manage the time spent on devices and allows you to set time limits on selected apps, as well as a bedtime curfew, lights out and school time curfews." There are lots of apps such as Screen Time Parental Control or ScreenTime available to help you set screen time limits and monitor activity, often they run in the background, but might have a subscription fee.

While apps are useful, Dr. Gummer advises you need to keep talking to your child about their screen time habits. She says, "above all, keep talking with your children about what they are watching, learning and intrigued by online.   If they are old enough to be on social media, then take an active interest in their platforms, be within their network and tackle challenging topics together.  Involving children in their own screen time planning and activity will foster independence, responsibility and self-awareness all really important for developing healthy screen habits later in life."

Screen time and travel

Screens can be incredibly useful to entertain little ones on long journeys. Dr. Gummer agrees, saying, "it may be that the half-term break takes you away from home and so obviously screen time is going to be a big part of the conversation.  If you’re going to be travelling long distances in a car or even aeroplane, then consider downloading some educational content for your child before you set off, so you can be confident that being glued to a screen will actually benefit their learning when there’s little opportunity to do anything else. You can also use their screen time to help you find local places of interest online and get them exploring things to do."

Alternatives to screen time?

The NHS recommends aiming to have some screen free days, and where this is not possible limiting screen time to no more than two hours per day. Your little one might moan it's not fair on screen free days but being prepared with some screen free activities is a great idea. Devices such as the tonie player, or Yoto player are excellent alternatives because your little one can still enjoy listening to stories, and even take them outside, but they won't need to look at a screen.

Of course, ideally, we want our children to be playing outside but that is not always possible with the weather, or perhaps a lack of outside space. Therefore have a box of activities such as puzzles, colouring, and some books to offer as an alternative. Children love crafts too, or baking if you are free to sit with them and help them. Encouraging independent play with figures and play sets, or role play toysis also another great idea. Dr. Gummer suggests stocking up saying, "encourage your children to make a list of things they would like to read, play or learn about and then stock up on art supplies, books or reading materials. Maybe rotate times and games with friends or join up the local library as well as exploring free resources online is a great place to start."

Screens can be addictive and they are easy to access, but once that option is removed (after some complaining) your little one will find something else they enjoy doing too. Screen time shouldn't be banned, just limited, to create a healthy balance.

About the expert

Liat Hughes Joshi is a London-based journalist, author and commentator. She has written six books on parenting: 'Help your Child Cope with Change', '5-Minute Parenting Fixes', 'New Old-fashioned Parenting', 'How to Unplug Your Child' and 'Raising Children: The Primary Years.' Liat has contributed to many national and international publications ranging from The Daily Telegraph, The Sun, The Guardian and The Sunday Times to leading magazines and websites.

Dr. Amanda Gummer has a PhD in Neuropsychology, a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education and over 20 years’ experience working with children and families. Having worked in children’s industries for many years, Amanda can regularly be seen in the media, including BBC News, Sky News, The Daily Mail and many more, offering advice on news stories and issues surrounding children, families and child development.

Laura Healy is a Commercial Content Writer for Mother&Baby. She is a mum-of-two girls and loves writing about all things parenting, she is particularly interested in the toddler years and eco-friendly baby products, as well as children’s literature. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and has published short stories in the UK and Ireland, as well as previously writing freelance for her local paper.

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