If your child is getting more than an hour of screen time a day, the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) says it’s too much. The organization rounded up recent research on the effects of TV, educational apps, video games and other forms of entertainment involving screens, and put together a position statement to help paediatricians guide parents about appropriate screen time for children up to age five. It concluded that infants and toddlers under two years old shouldn’t be using screens at all, and kids ages two to five should use smartphones, tablets, TV, video games, computers and wearable tech for less than an hour a day.
The thing is, if you became a parent in the past five years, odds are your kid demands to play her favourite educational game on your phone several times a day. She probably knows how to use Siri. And there’s a good chance she wants to watch Frozen on repeat. The CPS cites a 2014 report from Active Healthy Kids Canada that says kids ages three to five spend an average of two hours a day with screens—twice the recommended amount. And a US study found that kids from eight months to eight years old are exposed to nearly four hours of background television a day. “Kids get screen time not only at home but at daycare. And now, with mobile technology, it can add up pretty quickly,” says Michelle Ponti, chair of the CPS Digital Health Task Force.
But, when it comes to the research, the CPS says there is simply no benefit to using screens for kids under two. The statement explains that babies don’t absorb content from TV, and they struggle to transfer what they see in 2D to real life. Around age two, kids who use educational apps and programming may see some gains in the areas of cognitive development, language, literacy and imaginative play. (Check out Caring for Kids or Media Smarts for guidance on what content is educational.) Educational or pro-social programs can also help kids learn empathy, tolerance and respect. But face-to-face interaction is still the gold standard for teaching opportunities, and having plenty of time away from screens is key to developing creativity and self-regulation. The report reads: “Early learning is easier, more enriching and developmentally more efficient when experienced live, interactively, in real time and space, and with real people.”
“Too much screen time really means lost opportunity for teaching and learning,” says Ponti. What’s more, the CPS statement reports that when infants under one year old viewed more than two hours of TV a day, they experienced significant language delays. Excessive TV watching has also been associated with diminished short-term memory, and reading and math skills. Too much screen time, or using screens before bed, has been linked with poor sleep in kids. And those who get extra screen time early in life are more likely to spend even more time in front of screens later on.
The CPS wants parents to think more carefully about the lessons kids are getting from all that media content—which can be riddled with violence or ads for junk food—as well as the lessons kids are getting about how screen time is doled out.
“We are suggesting parents consider developing a family media plan,” says Ponti. “If for instance, the family decides half an hour is part of the daily plan for the child, then that’s absolutely reasonable. I think what parents have to beware of is falling into that trap of using screens as a reward to stop bad behaviour, or turning it into an electronic babysitter.”
Parents’ own use of screens can do a lot to help kids learn healthy behaviours around technology. Ponti says that not only should parents model when to put screens away (such as during meals and other family times), but they can model other habits, like reading, outdoor play and creative activities. “So that they’re not always reaching for that screen to entertain or serve as a calming strategy.”
When kids are using technology, the CPS says it’s important for parents to watch along with them and engage kids in discussion about the media they’re consuming. For one thing, parents are an integral part of the learning process for kids using educational apps or programming. “The research that’s been done has shown that the youngest toddlers still need the scaffolding by a parent to help transfer what they see on a 2D screen to real life,” says Ponti. Parents should also be monitoring what’s appropriate. “Violent or sexually explicit scenes are only a click or a swipe away,” says Ponti.
How to make screen time quality time
- Engage with kids as they watch. Ask them questions about the program or talk to them about what they’re learning.
- Choose educational programming, video games that involve being active, or adventure apps that take kids outside. While watching commercial TV is associated with a higher BMI in kids, programs that encourage an active lifestyle are good for kids’ health.
- Limit exposure to ads, which often promote unhealthy foods or behaviours.
The CPS recommends parents:
- Mitigate screen time by watching alongside kids and engaging them in conversation about how the content relates to the real world, or integrating screen use with active play.
- Use it mindfully by purposefully deciding the media kids watch, and the times when it’s viewed (ie. not during meals or other family times). They should also keep a close eye on the messages about things like body image, violence and diversity.
- Model healthy screen use by limiting how often they are on their phones or tablets around their kids and prioritizing time spent talking to or playing with their children.
- Minimize screen time by ensuring it’s not a routine part of child care, avoiding screens before bed and carving out screen-free times, where they read or share a meal as a family.
The bottom line? “There is no benefit to introducing technology early,” says Ponti. “But we do know what does benefit child learning, and that is live, face-to-face interactions with an engaged parent.”