Is My Child Getting Too Much Screen Time?

Your tod­dler is cry­ing for you to turn on their favorite movie for the umpteenth time. Your pre­teen is beg­ging you to let them cre­ate a social media account. And your teenag­er is some­how man­ag­ing to text non­stop with­out putting down their video game controller.

It doesn’t mat­ter how old your child is, they’re like­ly all about their screens — and you’ve had to think about con­trol­ling their screen time. 

Any time spent inter­act­ing with a screen is con­sid­ered screen time, whether it’s watch­ing TV, play­ing a video game, video chat­ting, or using social media. 

As screen use has explod­ed over the past few years, so have the ques­tions. How much time should chil­dren spend on screens? How does it affect their brain development?

Here are answers to some com­mon ques­tions about screen time for children: 

What is con­sid­ered too much” screen time?

There isn’t one hard and fast rule about screen time — it depends on sev­er­al fac­tors, like your child’s age and the type of screen and activity. 

If your child is 18 to 24 months and you intro­duce screen time oth­er than video chats, make sure that it’s high-qual­i­ty content.

Is it true that screen time can slow down my child’s brain development?

Yes — screen overuse can neg­a­tive­ly affect brain devel­op­ment. For exam­ple, one study found that the thick­ness of gray mat­ter” in the brain and the depth of space between brain folds — which are both mea­sures of how well the brain is devel­op­ing — was low­er in chil­dren ages 3 to 5 with high­er screen use.

Chil­dren who have lots of screen time in their first few years of life can start to show signs of devel­op­men­tal delays in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, per­son­al and social skills, prob­lem-solv­ing skills, and fine motor abil­i­ties (pre­cise move­ments like fas­ten­ing but­tons or hold­ing a pen­cil) as ear­ly as age 2. 

Does screen time con­tin­ue to affect brain devel­op­ment in old­er children?

Exces­sive screen time dur­ing ado­les­cence and teenage years may be asso­ci­at­ed with a thin­ner cor­tex (out­er lay­er of the brain that’s respon­si­ble for pro­cess­ing infor­ma­tion), which has been linked to a high­er risk of mak­ing impul­sive or dan­ger­ous decisions. 

Also, too much screen time can affect the devel­op­ment of regions in the brain linked with behav­iors like drink­ing alco­hol at a young age.

Also read: Tech­nol­o­gy May Be Harm­ing More Than Your Child’s Posture

How else does screen time affect a child’s health?

Chil­dren may overeat dur­ing screen time or choose screens over phys­i­cal activ­i­ty. Also, TV and video con­tent expos­es chil­dren to adver­tise­ments for unhealthy foods and drinks, which can influ­ence what they choose to eat (or pester you to buy). This can increase the risk of them becom­ing over­weight or obese.

Men­tal health is anoth­er major con­cern, espe­cial­ly among old­er chil­dren. Ado­les­cents and teenagers who spend a lot of time on their screens may strug­gle with depres­sion and anx­i­ety, and may even have a greater risk of show­ing sui­ci­dal behaviors. 

Addi­tion­al­ly, screen overuse can cause: 

  • Trou­ble sleeping

  • Poor body image

  • Dif­fi­cul­ty pay­ing attention

  • Vio­lence and aggression

  • Low­er aca­d­e­m­ic grades

  • Less social­iza­tion

Where does social media use play into screen time?

Social media can def­i­nite­ly be ben­e­fi­cial for ado­les­cents and teenagers, as it can allow them to con­nect with oth­ers. But it can also come with its fair share of down­sides. Too much time spent on it can: 

  • Increase your child’s risk for depres­sion and anxiety

  • Neg­a­tive­ly affect self-esteem or body image

  • Open them up to cyberbullying

  • Expose them to inac­cu­rate infor­ma­tion, racism, or hate speech

  • Pro­mote dan­ger­ous behav­iors like self-harm, eat­ing dis­or­ders, and binge drinking

  • Put them at risk for pri­va­cy inva­sion, iden­ti­ty theft, and talk­ing with online predators

You don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have to ban social media (unless you believe that’s the best thing for your child) — just help your child use it safe­ly. Set bound­aries, talk about pri­va­cy, and look out for changes to their men­tal health. 

Also read: Car­ing for Your Child’s Men­tal Health

Are there any ben­e­fits to screen time?

Par­ents of screen-lov­ing chil­dren, rejoice: Screen time can be edu­ca­tion­al, encour­age good behav­ior, and help chil­dren stay con­nect­ed with their fam­i­ly and friends. The key is smart screen time:

  • Pre­view shows or games so you can see if they are appropriate.

  • Uti­lize parental con­trols to block inap­pro­pri­ate con­tent or to set time limits.

  • Watch with your child and talk to them about what’s hap­pen­ing (e.g., point out good behav­ior, use a plot line as a jump­ing off point for a con­ver­sa­tion about a top­ic like alco­hol or sex, etc.).

  • Set a good exam­ple with your own screen habits.

  • Turn off the TV if no one is watch­ing — avoid let­ting it become back­ground noise. 

  • Encour­age active video games that involve mov­ing around so that they get phys­i­cal activ­i­ty dur­ing screen time.

  • Cre­ate a fam­i­ly media plan.

How do I know if my child is get­ting qual­i­ty” screen time?

Not all screen time is cre­at­ed equal, and some­thing doesn’t need to be mar­ket­ed as edu­ca­tion­al” to have a pos­i­tive effect on your child. It’s less about how it’s labeled and more about how your child engages with it. 

Com­mon Sense Media, which is the lead­ing non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion in the US that helps par­ents nav­i­gate the dig­i­tal world, rec­om­mends con­sid­er­ing the four C’s”:

  1. Con­nec­tion: Find con­tent your child can get engrossed in, with char­ac­ters or sto­ry­lines they can iden­ti­fy with.

  2. Crit­i­cal Think­ing: Choose con­tent that delves into sub­jects that your child will need to tru­ly think about, like con­sid­er­ing eth­i­cal dilemmas.

  3. Cre­ativ­i­ty: Look for learn­ing tools that allow your child to make some­thing, like a new song.

  4. Con­text: Dis­cuss what’s hap­pen­ing to help your child under­stand how their screen time fits into the world around them.

Keep in mind that not every moment of screen time needs to be high-qual­i­ty. It’s fine to some­times let them have some mind­less enter­tain­ment. The trick is to find a good balance.

The oth­er trick? Let your­self off the hook. There will like­ly be times when your child has heav­ier screen use than usu­al or when they spend more time on low­er-qual­i­ty con­tent. Give your­self some grace and remem­ber that it’s per­fect­ly nor­mal for your child to enjoy a lit­tle screen time.

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