Updated on

If you find yourself worrying about how too much screen time is affecting your child, do not panic. You are not alone. Every parent is mulling over the same and probably coming up with interesting decisions. Your decisions could be better.

The digital landscape in the 21st Century is so extensive, powerful and addictive, which makes it hard for the contemporary parent to have everything under control! Not even the experts can provide conclusive answers on perfect parenting when it comes to tech misuse.

The following questions are repeatedly asked in regards to too much screen time for children:

  • How does it affect family interactions?
  • How does it affect social interactions?
  • How does it interfere with the diet?
  • How does it interfere with child sleep at night?
  • How possible is to unplug from tech without ditching it?

Well, big questions with small answers – in real life at least!

What is Too Much Screen Time?

First things first, too much screen time is used to refer to the compulsive use of cell phones to make phone calls, chat on social media, surf the Internet, watch videos on YouTube, and play games. It is about the overall misuse of tablets, computers, and Televisions. On the flip-side, it may not include engagement with the news on TV, family movie-hour, or family video games, if done in moderation.

For children, under 5 – 7 years, too much screen time may include the total sedentary time they spend in front of screens, at the expense of physical activity, sleep and a healthy diet. It also includes the use of these devices during mealtimes, in bed, while walking, chatting face to face, and overall interaction with family and friends.

How Much Screen Time is Good Enough?

kids love tech
Too much screen time? (Pixabay)

Below is a summarized guideline on physical activity, sedentary behavior, and sleep for your children, under 5 years, according to the World Health Organization (‎2019)‎.

The guideline begins by reminding parents not to restrain children in a sedentary state for more than one hour, any time of the day! Mobility for them is extremely important.

Now to the total time they should spend using tech screens:

For infants less than 1 year,

screen time is not recommended. When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged.

For 1-year-olds,

sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended.

For 2 – 5-year-olds,

sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better. When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged.

Even as they grow beyond five years, children should not indulge in screen time use beyond one hour. Except of course when using them for educational purposes.

Is Your Child Addicted?

We all love bingeing on our smartphones, tablets, and laptops for longer than is usually necessary. This happens simply because we can, and no strict regulations are in place to stop us. Goofing with technology looks comfortable, and is the normal thing to do in the 21st Century.

Stats show that children with access to tech devices around the world spend an average of 2 to 3 hours a day on tablets, smartphones, game consoles, and TVs. A few others stretch this to 7 hours.

But tech overuse in young children, especially preschoolers, is bad. It is known to impede early childhood development milestones. The side effects can live with them to adulthood.

A study by JAMA Pediatrics whose results were released in 2019 reports that,

Excessive screen time can impinge on children’s ability to develop optimally; it is recommended that pediatricians and health care practitioners guide parents on appropriate amounts of screen exposure and discuss potential consequences of excessive screen use.

They go ahead to make the following conclusion and recommendations:

The results of this study support the directional association between screen time and child development. Recommendations include encouraging family media plans, as well as managing screen time, to offset the potential consequences of excess use.

Madigan S, Browne D, Racine N, Mori C, Tough S. Association Between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test. JAMA Pediatr. Published online January 28, 2019173(3):244–250. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5056

The Negative Effects of Too Much Screen Time!

Prevent smartphone overuse
Prevent smartphone overuse in children

It is safe to say scientists and child experts are torn on the exact side effects of screen time overuse. Fact is, too much screen time is known to cause ‘indirect’ health side effects and negative social/economic wellbeing in children. And though data is still scanty and a little over-amplified, your child may also lag behind in mastering communication and problem-solving skills, compared to their peers.

1. Physical Inactivity

By design, children should play more to stay vibrant and healthy. They should get the heart pumping fast and experience repeated huffs and puffs in the course of the day. Active physical activity, as opposed to sedentary posture, helps them develop stronger bones and muscles for better motor skills. Physical well-ness stimulates blood flow to allow the brain and mental faculties to function optimally.

According to WHO,

Children should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily.’(MVPA)

Guthold R, Stevens GA, Riley LM, Bull FC. Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 358 population-based surveys with 1· 9 million participants. The Lancet Global Health. 2018 Sep 4.

Children who spend extended hours bingeing on computer and TV screens are physically inactive and therefore slow in achieving fundamental motor skills. Ultimately, they delay excelling in soft skills such as writing and drawing, and hard skills such as walking and running. They will equally experience delays in academic excellence.

Besides poor physical wellbeing, a sedentary lifestyle is a contributing factor to poor eating habits. When the body does not burn the energy it consumes, children tend to gain weight and crave unhealthy food, all at the same time.

2. Effects on Cognitive Well-being

While it is true computer knowledge and interaction stimulate the brain of the child, it must be done at par with other sources of stimulation. Truth is, kids today need computers in order to prepare for the evolving challenges of the 21st Century. Every aspect of life and work today and tomorrow function inside and around the computer landscape.

According to a UNICEF recommendation,

moderate use of digital technology tends to be beneficial for children’s mental well-being, while no use or too much use can have a small negative impact.        

However, too much screen time at an early age will deprive them the time to engage in, and learn real-life skills which are instrumental in boosting cognitive skills. Plenty of physical activity, sufficient sleep, and a healthy diet should come up top of this list, especially for the very young children.

The UNICEF document clarifies thus,

to improve children’s mental well-being, it is more important to focus on other factors such as family functioning, social dynamics at school and socio-economic conditions, while also ensuring that children use digital technology in moderate amounts.          

The case could different in older children, specifically adolescents. Research by Orben, and Baukney-Przybylski, AK, somehow goes against the perceived popular notion that screen time as a whole interferes with the psychological well-being of adolescents.

We find little evidence for substantial negative associations between digital screen engagement – measured either throughout the day or particularly before bedtime – and adolescent well-being.

Orben, A., & Przybylski, A. K. (2019, March 25). Screens, Teens and Psychological Well-Being: Evidence from three time-use diary studies. Retrieved from osf.io/v6n9w

According to them, adolescents are better suited to handle screen times better that young children. Of course, they do not have to abuse this privilege.

3. Screen Time Effects on Health

Phone use to the extreme
Phone use to the extreme! Photo by Barbara Provenzano on Unsplash

Too much screen time comes with a whole array of health-related side effects which can last a lifetime. It stems from the fact that children stay sedentary, eat poorly and usually get irregular sleep, all because they want to spend a few more minutes indulging TV screens, game consoles or smartphones.

Poor use of screen time just before sleep can mess up the sleep-wake cycle and this can play havoc on the functioning of the melatonin and human growth hormones. These hormones are released only in the night and require darkness and sufficient sleep to function optimally. The hormones are crucial in ensuring the body organs grow, regenerate, and repairs itself.

Another worry is related to radiofrequency emission from phones, tablets, and other wireless gadgets which are spread around the house to aid screen time. Kids and parents place smartphones and tablets close to the bed or actually sleep with them.

The body tissues, bone density, cells and eyes in young children are quite tender and growing and are at risk of alteration if exposed to extended radio frequency emissions. The effects of RF can be life-threatening.

Below are just a few health complications that may arise as a result of sedentary posture from screen time and exposure to radiofrequency emissions:

  • Tech neck which leads to poor posture and physique
  • Obesity, resulting from an unhealthy diet
  • Diabetes as a result of obesity
  • Poor sleep quality when screens are used deep into the night
  • Cancers

4. Psychosocial Problems

Extended use of screen time so easily deprives children the opportunity to naturally interact with family and peers. The trend is as they grow up to cook up relationships online. Because the internet is awash with all kinds of malpractices and bad fellows, this approach fails most of the time.

The situation is made worse when adults become part of the problem by abusing tech. When everyone in the house is buried into their phones, little or no social interaction happens.

In a 2018 research by the Journal of Pediatrics in China, it was concluded that too much screen time led to poor psychosocial health in young children. One of the most affected areas is parent-child interaction, where the two talk less and accomplish little or no tasks together.

In general, deprivation of social interaction across the board, and overindulging digital screen time can lead to negative effects such as,

  • poor communication
  • inability to make friends
  • poor life skills development
  • poor language development
  • lower self-control
  • lowered self-esteem
  • decreased emotional stability
  • lowered curiosity
  • poor adaptive behavior

5. Adult & Violent Content

vioelnt content online
The Internet is awash with inappropriate content for children (Pexels.com)

Excess screen time means children have unmetered access to everything good and bad online and offline. Starting with YouTube and down the way to social media platforms, a lot is posted that kids should not be seeing.

Their sense of curiosity and ability to weave around tech is so heightened that parents need to stay awake with the trends. In brief, children are always a click away from watching what they should not until they are 18.

Such materials include,

  • pornographic and inappropriate content stored on phone apps
  • violence in cartoons, movies, and games
  • cyberbullying
  • self-harm forums
  • adult based apps with adult language
  • racist content
  • swear content
  • gambling sites

Other content may come as explicit popups, especially from game sites or YouTube, and can disturb children every time they view them. The matter becomes controversial when parents are unwilling to discuss them, especially out of embarrassment and ignorance.

To avoid the embarrassments make it a point to delete inappropriate files in phone storage and apps such as photo and video albums, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, etc.

Secondly, parents should implement parental controls in browsers, game consoles, and YouTube to limit accidental leakage of bad content. Unfortunately for many, this is a daunting task they are not prepared for.

In Conclusion

Screen time is not necessarily bad and is going nowhere out of our lives. At least not until another user interface is cooked up by the next generation of computer gurus.

It is also not bad to experience tech extremes once in a while – we all do. We are human after all. As long as these encounters are countered equally with regular physical activity, a good diet, and sufficient sleep, then all will be fine.

Other reads you may find useful: