As parents, we’ve all heard that too much tv time for young children is bad. In fact, research shows that too much time spent watching tv (and therefore away from real-time 3-D interactions and play) can negatively impact learning, attention, sleep and physical health. But what does “too much” time mean? And how does this research apply to interactive applications or educational games on tablets and electronic notebooks?
ZERO TO THREE (ZTT), a national non-profit organized to bring awareness to developmental issues of young children just published new guidelines for screen time based on recent research about screen media use with young children. You can find the full report here. Notably, the research highlights some distinct benefits to incorporating screen time in limited amounts into your child’s daily routine.
This is good news for parents living in the digital age-you’re not permanently scarring your child by letting them play Bugs and Buttons while you grab your first shower in a week! But does this mean that you can guiltlessly let your child play “ABC Mouse” uninhibited all day while you peruse the Internet for a killer price on that fabulous black dress you’ve been pining over for months? Not exactly.
Let’s break down ZTT’s recommendations.
1. Put Limits on Screen Time.
Most of the developmental damage that results from too much screen time doesn’t necessarily come from actually viewing the screen. Instead, time spent in front of the screen means time NOT spent engaging in positive, warm, loving interactions with parents and caregivers where children learn turn-taking, emotion regulation, and exploratory skills; which is the single most important factor in a child’s healthy development.
Bottom Line: If you can give these moments of positive interaction to your child in excess, a few minutes of screen time here or there isn’t a big deal.
2. Participate in screen time.
Remember all those things we just said about positive interaction? You can use the screen to do it! It turns out, when parents actively participate in screen time, making it a language-rich, connection-filled experience, children can expand their learning and enhance their understanding of the world around them. When your child is playing “The Wheels on the Bus” for the 900th time, try saying, “Hey, we rode on a bus this morning!, just like this bus!” (Bonus points for singing out loud with your child in a public place.)
Bottom Line: Spend the majority of your child’s screen time playing along with her. Make comments about counting objects in the real world while Dora counts alligators. And don’t beat yourself up if you give your child your phone while you catch the quick adult conversation you’ve been dying to have with a friend.
3. Turn off the TV when no one’s watching it.
Researchers have long since known that background TV noise is detrimental to a child’s development of attention, higher-order thinking, and decision making. Actually, parents should wait to watch adult-themed content until after the kids are asleep. Fear-inducing images and fast-paced screen shots have been shown to temporarily impair young children’s ability to plan and organize their play, an essential precursor to sustained attention and social skill development.
Bottom Line: 24-hour news is not healthy for children to watch (pictures of child soldiers in the middle east?!?) and Sports Center plays 12 times a day: catch it later.
4. Turn off all screens an hour before bedtime.
Screen use has been linked to sleep difficulties and disorders, especially when digital devices are viewed just before sleep. Moving images on a screen are stimulating, and a child may have a hard time relaxing their body in order to prepare for sleep. As much as possible, remove screen use from your child’s bedtime routine. This goes for you too. Keep your phone in the kitchen during your child’s bedtime routine. I promise, that email can wait.
Bottom line: Read real books at bedtime instead of e-Books and take the tv out of your child’s bedroom. You will thank me when you wake up 12 peaceful, non-interrupted hours later.
Using ZTTs review of the research and other psychology and education research, my recommended screen time hours:
Children < 2: No more than 30 minutes/day. Try to limit screen time as much as possible and interact with your child while they are using the screen. This is prime brain development time and live, in-person, human interaction is the only way to do it right.
Children < 5: No more than 1 hour/day. Encourage self-play time instead. Help them get started building a garage for their toy trucks, then tell them how excited you are to see what it looks like after you finish making dinner.
Children > 5: Limit to 2 hours/day max. (I would say 1 if possible). Children at this stage of life are actively practicing their social and academic skills. Encourage them to write a letter to someone they know or someone they’d like to know, even a TV character. Check out Curious George books from the library so they can read about their favorite characters instead of watching them on TV.
As with everything in life, extremes are not necessarily good. If you implement a strict screen ban with your children, you might have a hard time explaining why you are allowed to check your emails during their basketball practice. They also might be behind their peers in understanding basic technological principles by the time they get into the elementary school classroom. Too much screen time has clear negative effects on brain, academic, social, and emotional development. Use your judgment as a parent to interpret these guidelines in ways that can benefit your family the best.
Kristen R. Jamison, M.T., Ph.D.