Screen time and children

Captivated by the screen.
Captivated by the screen. 

Many parents, educators, and mental health professionals are concerned about the amount of time children are spending watching TV or “plugged in” to video games, computers and online activities.

According to recent studies, young children under the age of 2 spend an average of 2 hours per day watching TV or other screen media (like computers), while children over the age of 8 spend around 7 hours per day in front of screens (including texting on mobile phones).

Why are screens so inviting?

Online and screen mediums are rewarding in a way that is very difficult to replicate in the “real” world.

Research suggests that screens may act as “Super Stimuli” similar to sugar and fat, where our evolutionary biology has programmed us to seek and consume what it considers important for survival.  

Screen time creates constant visual and auditory stimuli and acts as a positive feedback loop for the brain. Events like receiving a text message are also considered “rewards” by the brain  - and more is better.

Screen mediums are also essentially “passive” activities, where although children may appear to be interacting, brain scans would suggest that the brain is less active than in non-screen activities. When children and young people’s brains become used to the reward pattern of screen time, they can find non-screen time under-stimulating and underwhelming.

The consequence can be that young people, for example, can find it difficult to tolerate any “down” time, reaching for their smart phones the moment they are waiting for a bus, sitting on the train or even going to the toilet!

What are the risks of too much screen time?

While kids have a lot of fun using screen media, it can also have negative effects on healthy development. Some of the risks associated with excessive TV and computer use during childhood include:

Attention difficulties: The rapid sequence of images and information that characterizes screen media inhibits the brain’s ability to develop sustained focus.

Delayed language and limited vocabularies: While watching screen media the part of the brain that is responsible for language acquisition becomes passive, making it difficult for babies to learn words and syntax.

More aggressive and violent play behaviour: Children may become desensitized to the consequences of aggressive behavior after seeing it presented as benign or humorous on TV or online.

Obesity: Sitting in front of the computer or TV means less time spent on active play, which reduces the likelihood of childhood obesity.

How much screen time is OK?

Most experts and recent research agree that children under 2 should not use screen media. The activity can interfere with playing, exploring, and interacting with others, all of which are crucial to physical and social development in the first 2 years of life. Children under 8 should use screen media for no more than 1-2 hours per day.

How can we cut back our family’s screen time?

It can be a real challenge to cut back on screen media use at home, especially as adults are excessive users as well.

The best way to encourage your children to cut back on using the TV, computers, and mobile phones is to model healthy behaviour yourself. Set a limit on screen time at home — say, 2 hours per day in the evenings, broken up into 30-minute chunks. It’s also a good idea to provide fun alternative activities to reduce the likelihood of boredom.

Free play, reading, and in-person conversations are activities that promote healthy brain development in children — encourage activities that include these options.

Some other tips to cut back on screen time at home:

Unplug and cover up. When you’re not using computers or the TV, unplug them, or stash them in a cabinet where you can’t see them.

Schedule. Limit use of screen media to at least 2 hours before your child’s bedtime. Using a computer or watching TV close to bedtime can interfere with your child’s sleep cycles, and make it difficult for them to doze off.

Relocate. Designate a “computer zone” for your family that is in a well-trafficked space, like the living room, so that users feel less absorbed while they’re using them.

Communicate. Tell your child’s babysitter and her friends’ parents that you are trying to cut back on screen time, so that your child isn’t gorging on screen media when you’re not around.

Converse. Watch TV with your child during designated screen media time, and ask them questions about the programming throughout. This will stimulate the language centres of your child’s brain, which are less active while watching TV.

Reconsider. Try not to offer TV, computer, or mobile phone use as a reward for good behaviour, or prohibit use as punishment. This can heighten a child’s interest in screen media.


Information provided by the Quirky Kid child psychology clinic. Find out more about separation and anxiety at the Quirky kid website.

Online and screen mediums are rewarding in a way that is very difficult to replicate in the “real” world ...