How much time should children spend looking at screens?
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
Everywhere you look, there are screens. Televisions, computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, music players - you cannot escape them. It is very easy to fall into the trap, and stare at them all day. For adults, it is hard enough to prise yourself from the screens - but what about children?
In the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend limiting a child's daily screen time, because real-life interactions are much better for their wellbeing, learning and development. In their latest guidelines, they suggest that children under 18 months should avoid screens altogether, unless they are video-chatting.
Adults should accompany the screen time for children between 18 months and two years, and two to five-year-olds should "have no more than one hour a day of screen time with adults watching or playing with them". For children aged six and above, there should be "consistent limits on the time they spend on electronic media and the types of media they use".
These are the recommendations, but parents are not necessarily sticking to it. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, American children spend seven hours a day in front of electronic media - with children as young as two regularly playing on the iPad or having playroom toys that involve touch screens.
However, as the Guardian notes, it is more complicated than the quotas suggest. "It’s unclear whether that means four hours playing a video game on a Sunday is okay, or whether it is better to have three 20-minute sessions with the iPad than one hour-long session," they write.
It is not about the dangers of the length they spend with touch screens, per se, but the quality of content they are interacting with. Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who specialises in the concept of “digital nutrition”, told the Guardian that you have to think what media children are eating, rather than counting calories (or screen time).
She said: “It’s not just about whether you consume any potential digital junk foods, but also your relationship to technology and the role it plays in your family life.
“We know that using screens to soothe or pacify kids sets up some concerning patterns of relying on devices to calm or distract a child (or teen, or adult) from their experience of unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions – so we want to avoid using screens to placate tantrums, just like we want to avoid eating ‘treats’ to calm emotional storms.”
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK reports that the evidence for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated. The majority of the literature that exists around this topic only looks at television screen time.
"Evidence is weak for a threshold to guide children and parents to the appropriate level of screen time, and we are unable to recommend a cut-off for children's screen time overall," they write. Their recommendation is that families should negotiate screen time limits based on the needs of an individual child. They also suggest that screens are avoided for an hour before the planned bedtime.