It is true parents worldwide are terrified by their children indulging in too much screen time. They are terrified because they do not know what the little ones are seeing online, and what dire consequences may ship with the habit.

To top it up, they are unsure what they can do to have this habit under control because they too are needlessly addicted to their smartphones.

Not even the experts and the well-placed in society seem to have reassuring solutions. Melinda Gates, the ex-wife of philanthropist Bill Gates, spent years trying & probably failing to understand the same.

Here is what she said,

I spent my career at Microsoft trying to imagine what technology could do, and still, I wasn’t prepared for smartphones and social media. Like many parents with children my kids’ age, I didn’t understand how they would transform the way my kids grew up — and the way I wanted to parent. I’m still trying to catch up.

With all fairness, she probably succeeded because she kept phones away from her kids until they were 14! Still, it is debatable if she achieved this goal every day.

For the vast majority out there, goofing with tech devices remains comfortable and the normal thing to do.

Exactly what is too much screen time?

By conventional standards, too much screen time refers to the compulsive use of cell phones and other screen devices to make phone calls, chat on social media, surf the Internet, watch videos on YouTube, and play games.

On the flip-side, screen time may not include family engagements with the news on TV, movie hours, and video games, if done in moderation and with supervision.

For children, under 8 years, too much screen time may include the total sedentary time they spend in front of technology screens at the expense of physical activity, healthy eating, and sufficient sleep.

It also includes the use of technology devices in bed, during mealtimes, while walking, and during face-to-face interactions.

Statistics show that children around the world spend an average of 3 to 5 hours a day on tablets, smartphones, game consoles, and TVs. A few others stretch this to 7 hours.

How much screen time is recommended for childen?

Below is a summarized guideline on screen time, in relation to physical activity and sedentary lifestyle for children under 5 years, according to the World Health Organization.

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 not last 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, children should not indulge in extended screen-time use. Except of course when they are used for educational purposes with the help of parents and caregivers.

The negative effects of too much screen time!

The following parenting worries should make you think twice before dumping smartphones in your child’s hands:

1. Screen time impact on childhood development milestones!

The truth is technology overuse and misuse in young children, especially during the formative years can wreak havoc on development milestones. The side effects can live with them to adulthood.

A study by JAMA Pediatrics whose results were released in 2019 shows 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 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.

2. Effects on cognitive well-being

While it is true computer knowledge and interaction may stimulate your child’s brain, it must be done at par with other natural stimulants.

Kids need technology in order to prepare for a world so full of them in the 21st century. Most sectors of our lives and work today and in the future operate within the tech ecosystem and there is no way to get around it.

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 will deprive them of the quality time to engage in, and learn real-life skills which are necessary to boost cognitive development.

A 2018 research released by the National Institutes of Health in the US pointed to a low score in cognitive and language tests in children who spent two hours using computer screens.

A thinning of the cortex of the brain was noticed in children who spent upwards of 7 hours. Remember this is the part of the brain tasked with thinking and reasoning!

Plenty of physical activity, sufficient sleep, and a healthy diet should be preferred for healthy mental development.

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 be different in older children, specifically adolescents. Research by Orben, and Baukney-Przybylski, AK 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.

Apparently, adolescents are better placed to handle extended screen time. This, however, is no reason enough for them to abuse the privilege.

3. The sedentary lifestyle

By design, children should play more to keep the body healthy and alert. 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. Physical wellness also stimulates blood flow to the brain to facilitate mental wellness.

According to WHO,

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

Children who spend extended hours bingeing on computers and TV screens are physically inactive and therefore slow in achieving fundamental cognitive and 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.

4. Screen time and overall child health

Too much screen time comes with a whole array of health-related side effects that 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 in TV screens, game consoles, or smartphones.

Poor use of screen time just before sleep can mess up the sleep-wake cycle and this can disrupt the release of melatonin, cortisol, and human growth hormones.

Melatonin and HGH are released at night during darkness to facilitate better sleep. The hormones are crucial in ensuring the body organs and cells grow, regenerate, and repairs themselves.

Cortisol is released early in the morning to facilitate a positive mood during the day.

Another worry is related to the release of radiofrequency emissions from phones, tablets, and other wireless gadgets that are scattered around the house. Kids and parents also place smartphones and tablets close to the bed. Others actually sleep with them.

The body tissues, bone density, cells, and eyes in children are still delicate 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 OTHER health complications that may arise due to screen time overuse and the related sedentary posture:

  • 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

5. Psychosocial problems

Extended use of screen time also deprives children of the opportunity to interact with family and peers.

Failure to see family members and friends eye to eye can predispose them to all kinds of social-emotional challenges.

And that is not all:

This is made worse when adults too become victims of tech addiction. When everyone in the house is buried into their phones, little or no social and emotional interactions take place.

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 overindulgence in digital screen time can lead to the following:

  • 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

6. Exposure to adult & violent content

Excess screen time means children have unmetered access to everything good and bad online.

Starting with YouTube and down the road to social media platforms, a lot is posted that kids should not be seeing.

Their sense of curiosity and ability to weave around technology platforms means they have access to whatever they want. 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 unwanted content may come as explicit popups, especially from game and porn sites.

7. Screen time and child sleep

Irresponsible use of technology, and smartphones, in particular, affect how children sleep at night. The more hours children spend bingeing on smartphones translates to fewer hours they get to sleep at night.

The typical smartphone screens emit the notorious short-wavelength blue and violet light which interferes with the sleep-wake cycle, according to Sleep foundation:

Using TVs, tablets, smartphones, laptops, or other electronic devices before bed delays your body’s internal clock (a.k.a., your circadian rhythm), suppresses the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. 

In conclusion

Screen time is not necessarily bad and is not going away anytime soon! It is also not bad to experience tech extremes once in a while – we all do. After all, we are humans, and naturally, we are prone to addictive habits every now and then.

As long as these encounters are kept to a minimum, and countered equally with regular physical activity, a good diet, and sufficient sleep, then all will be fine.

Still, children should be made aware of the dangers of technology misuse right through the formative years to allow them make informed decisions as they grow up.