Kids' screen time has doubled since the 90s - but don't blame mobile devices

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy 

Screen time for toddlers has doubled over the past 20 years but mobile devices aren't to blame. That's the key takeaway from a large study of US kids, which found that children under six spend most of their time watching TV, rather than on phones or iPads.

The research, which appears in JAMA Pediatricsexamined data from diaries collected in 1997 and 2014 - before and after mobile devices became our go-to babysitters.  

"In 1997, screen time was defined as time spent on any activity while watching television programs or videotapes, plus time spent on electronic video games and home computer– related activities," the authors write.

Almost two decades later, however, the options had increased somewhat. "By 2014, screen time activities included the use of television, videotapes, digital video disc, game devices, computer, cell phone, smartphone, tablet, electronic reader, and children's learning devices."

The team found that in 1997, kids under two clocked an average of 1.3 hours of screen time per day. By 2014, this had increased to around three hours per day, with most of that screen time happening in front of the television.

"We found that, between 1997 and 2014, screen time doubled among children aged 0 to 2 years and that, both before and after the advent of mobile devices, young children's television time increased tremendously," the authors write.

In 1997, kids aged three to five watched an average of 2.5 hours of screen time, a number that didn't increase significantly for kids in the same age group in 2014. But smartphones and computers aren't to blame - a whopping 78 per cent of this screen time occurred in front of the box. 

It's a finding the researchers say could have important implications. "As stakeholders warn against an over reliance on mobile devices, they should be mindful that young children spend most of their screen time watching television."

How do these figures compare to current guidelines?

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The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends digital media use should be limited to no more than one hour per day in children aged two to five, "to allow children ample time to engage in other activities important to their health and development and to establish media viewing habits associated with lower risk of obesity."

When it comes to younger viewers, however, their stance is firmer: "For children younger than 2 years, evidence for benefits of media is still limited, adult interaction with the child during media use is crucial, and there continues to be evidence of harm from excessive digital media use," they write.

Here in Australia, Sedentary Behaviour Recommendations from the Department of Health advise no more than one hour of sedentary screen time during a 24-hour period for kids aged two - five and no screen time for kids under two.

 Specifically:

  • Infants (Birth to one year) should not be restrained for more than one hour at a time (e.g. in a stroller, car seat or high chair). Infants should also not spend any time watching television or using other electronic media (DVDs, computer and other electronic games) 
  • Toddlers (aged 1-2 years) should not be restrained for more than one hour at a time or sit for extended periods. For toddlers younger than two years, screen time is not recommended during sedentary periods.
  • For those aged 2 years, screen time should be no more than one hour in total throughout the 24-hour period.
  • Pre-schoolers (aged 3-5 years) should not be restrained, for more than one hour at a time or sitting for extended periods. Sedentary screen time should be no more than one hour in total throughout the 24-hour period.