Placing Limits on Screen Time

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D

According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, 64% of babies ages one to two watch TV and/or videos for slightly more than two hours daily, and preschoolers use media on average 2.2 hours to 4.6 hours a day.

Citing the lack of evidence that screen time provides educational benefits to young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies under age two avoid all screens—televisions, computers, tablets, and phones—and that parents monitor and manage electronic media exposure for older children. Developmentally, children benefit most from active play and social interaction, not touching a screen or pushing buttons that light up and ding.

Recommendation Meets Reality

In my experience, screens occupy and calm kids when they’re grumpy, overly demanding at a bad time, or need to settle down from high-energy activities. To say this is “bad” probably won’t change anything. In my office I see 18-month-old toddlers scrolling through iPads like pros. Saying, “Don’t” may be right, but it just doesn’t work.

Given that children are using screens, I feel that it’s essential that parents have guidelines for setting limits:

  • Using videos to get ready for bed is not a good idea even if the passivity quiets children down. The body’s inner clock responds to light as the signal for waking and sleeping. An electronic screen generates as much light as the noon sun. Try music instead. Obviously, personal interaction such as reading and singing are best.
  • Different types of electronics impact the brain differently. Watching TV is passive. Research indicates a limited amount of passivity allows time for creative daydreaming, which can lead to new ideas and “aha” moments. Note the word “limited.” Without limits, kids can shift into TV mode too easily. Playing with an iPad is different. It’s interactive and stimulates the brain as children make choices to scroll, touch pictures, play, etc. Research suggests too much of this kind of play can be over-stimulating.
  • Research suggests that children don’t learn language skills from TV or screens as well as they do from real people. Actual social interaction with people on screens (e.g. Skype or FaceTime) is more positive. Children’s TV programs have picked up on this, with characters talking as if they are speaking to the viewer and pausing for a response. There’s not enough research to show this is as effective as a real two-way interaction.
  • Limit screen time when children are young. Some researchers recommend limiting screen use to 30 minutes at a time, with a 5 to 1 ratio of non-screen time to screen time for very young children. Allowing unlimited screen time is like letting toothpaste out of the tube. You won’t be able to put it back. Setting limits early enables you to limit time later so your child will actually play with friends, be part of the family at dinner, and not binge during homework time.
  • Think about the educational value of what you’re allowing your child to see. Although research hasn’t demonstrated actual educational benefits despite the claims of manufacturers, if you’re allowing games, use ones that are potentially good. Commonsensemedia.org rates games, videos, etc. in terms of educational value and appropriateness for different ages.
  • Make sure your child has electronics-free solo playtime. A child needs to learn to entertain herself. Children who are “addicted” to the immediate gratification of fast-paced electronics often complain of boredom when asked to rely on their own creativity or interests.
  • Limit electronics for play dates. Social and physical skill development associated with playing, creativity, and exploration are not achieved by playing side-by-side on tablets.
  • Don’t have the TV always on in the background. You can have music playing instead.
  • Interact with your child when using electronics rather than having screens babysit. Talk about videos, pictures on the tablet, games, etc. Fun activities can be an opportunity for interaction if you use them. Ask questions, share memories of the pictures on the phone, or talk about what’s happening on TV. Often children’s shows have messages built in; this is a great chance to talk about them. Just sharing and short comments are fine.
  • Most important, monitor your own use of electronics. Are you on your phone at dinner with your child? Are you attending to your child’s play or your text messages? With adults this is rude; with children this is deprivation. It is also bad role-modeling and poor parenting. No other words for it.

In this electronics-driven world, we need to carefully balance children’s developmental needs with the lure of technology as entertainment, education, and babysitter. There are real reasons for caution—there are already 4-year-olds being treated for screen addictions. Children are using screens at a younger and younger age, so parents must think about what they will and won’t allow.

Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders.