As the world becomes increasingly digital, I get a lot of questions about screen time.
- Will screen time affect my child’s development?
- When will my child be old enough to watch TV?
- Can I have the TV on with my baby awake?
- How much screen time should I give my toddler?
There is too much nuance around the topic of screen time for me to answer these questions with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, when families ask me about screen time, I like to share some general guidelines that can be helpful as they consider if/how they want to use screen time in their homes.
I created these guidelines after completing evidence-based research and years of supporting families through all the tricky topics that come with parenting, including setting boundaries around screen time.
I will share these guidelines with you, but first, let’s get a little nerdy and dig into what the research has to say.
What does the research say about screen time?
Kids don’t ‘need’ screen time.
Some may argue that screen time is an educational tool for our children and is important for their development.
While the research does show that older kids (3+) can learn and retain information from education programs, it also tells us that younger toddlers and babies are not “learning” anything specific from screens. While the TV can hold their attention for a time, there is solid evidence that early learning is done best with actual lived experience in real-time and space with people.
The research indicates that EXCESSIVE screen use was CORRELATED with potential language and cognitive development delays and attention issues in children under 5.
But wait… does that mean screen time causes these delays?
No! It’s important to take note of the words “excessive” and “correlated” when we are looking at the research.
Correlation vs Causation
The word correlation is often confused with causation. Just because two actions are correlated does not mean that one causes the other (that would be causation). It means that action A may be related to action B, but one does not necessarily cause the other to happen.
For example, research shows that ice cream sales are the highest at the same time of year that homicides are the highest. This would mean there is a correlation between the two. Does this mean that eating ice cream causes homicides? No. We need to look at the bigger picture – maybe it has to do with the weather or the amount of daylight at a particular time of year.
Yes, there is a correlation between high amounts of screen time and decreased language development and attention issues, but we need to remember that there may be factors outside of screen time taking place.
What does screen time take away from?
The concern is not as much screen time – but what does the screen time take away from?
Does screen time take away from a child’s ability to be bored? Being bored and finding creative solutions are essential for children’s development.
Do you still get to spend time reading, laughing, and playing with your child? Playing and spending time laughing with your kids is an important part of building a secure relationship.
Does it take away from your child’s spending time engaging in open-ended play? Open-ended play is another integral part of our children’s development.
In my experience, most families use screen time as a tool. They are active and engaged parents, and their children still have time to be bored and engage in open-ended play outside of screen time.
Screen time = part of your parenting toolbox
Here is the nuance that is often missed: How can screen time serve parents?
Can they make dinner safely without their toddler crying at their leg and potentially getting no dinner made or losing their cool?
Does screen time allow a sick toddler to sit and rest their body while their parent gets some work done?
Does a mom with a newborn baby and postpartum depression get a chance to talk and bond with her baby as she watches Real Housewives and tells her baby about all the characters on the show?
As a postpartum mom in a pandemic parenting alone, I used screen time as a way to have an hour to sit down and rest my body and nurse my baby with my 3-year-old. It gave me a physical break so my body could heal.
It’s not black and white. Screen time can be a tool that serves you well, as long as you remember that moderation and what you do outside of screen time are important.
Screen time should be used as a tool in your parenting toolbox. It is not your only tool, but it can be there if you need it.
General guidelines for screen time
1. Set routines around screen time
It’s essential to have clear boundaries around screen time, so your child knows when it starts and finishes.
For example, my 3-year-old would watch a show every day while I put my baby down for a nap for months. She knew this was her time to watch a show, I knew I had a bit of a break, and she knew after a certain amount of episodes, I would turn off the show.
2. Not all screen time is created equal
It can be helpful to limit the amount of exposure a child has to really fast-paced shows, like Cocomelon or Paw Patrol. You may notice these types of shows cause your child to become overstimulated. You know your child best, so just be mindful of your child’s temperament and ability to handle this type of show.
My favourite slower-paced shows are Daniel Tiger, Bluey, and Mr. Rogers.
3. Co-watch shows when you can
We do family movie night on Friday, and this is amazing! This can be a bonding experience with you and your child and even allow you to ask some really engaging questions! What do you notice about Elsa’s face when Anna says this? What do you think Daniel Tiger is feeling?
4. Be aware of what they are watching
Children should be watching AGE-appropriate content. I have seen many kids struggle with nightmares or fears because they watched shows too mature for them. Pre-watch movies or look into them before watching them with your kids.
5. Other general guidelines
Outside of screen time, ensure there is a lot of time for open-ended play, being bored, and talking/singing/reading.
Keep screens in public areas of the house—no screens in bedrooms.
Model Model Model!!! Kids are watching you.
Release yourself from guilt. Use screen time as a tool in your parenting tool kit. If you feel like it is your only tool and have it on all day because you think it’s the only way you can get through the day with your kids, please don’t hesitate to reach out for support. Therapists can help you build up that toolbox, so it includes a wide range of strategies. You aren’t alone!