How much screen time is healthy for children? Health risks to kids


Many parents are under the belief that technology and gadgets are essential for a child’s development, but can you go too far? How much time should a child spend in front of a screen is a question being asked not just by worried parents but psychologists, health organisations and even governments. Here, you can read a collection of experts’ guidelines for managing a child’s screen time, and their warnings and advice on the dangers of recreational screen time, especially before bedtime.

A recent TLF Panel survey conducted on behalf of kids clothing retailer found that four in five parents believe technology and gadgets are good for kids, aiding in their development. The study found that 37 percent of parents asked said that their child spent between one and two hours a day playing with tech gadgets, and 28 percent said between two- and three hours. Moreover, the study found that 38 percent of two- to five-year-olds own an Android tablet, and 32 percent own an iPad; almost a third (32 percent) of these kids also have a mobile phone.

See also Online safety: How to keep children safe online

The reason behind all this gadget use: over a third of parents (35 percent) said they use tech gadgets to entertain their children because they are convenient, and nearly a quarter (23 percent) because they want their children to be tech-savvy. A 2015 survey of 1,000 British mothers of children aged 2 to 12 found that 85 percent of mums admit to using technology to keep the kids occupied while they get on with other activities. The survey pointed to children spending on average around 17 hours a week in front of a screen – almost double the 8.8 weekly hours spent playing outside.

Wanting our children to tech-savvy is understandable, and the need to keep them entertained (while we work or just tidy up after them!) will also make sense to many a parent. But we must also weigh up the risks associated with children having too much screen time.

In his lecture ‘Managing Screen Time and Screen Dependency’ Dr Aric Sigman argues that “whether it’s Facebook, the internet or computer games, screen time is no longer merely a cultural issue about how children spend their leisure time, nor is it confined to concern over the educational value or inappropriate content – it’s a medical issue”.

Sigman is concerned less with a child’s ICT or Computer Science study or use of computers for homework, but more with their screen time in non-educational environments in front of entertainment screen media such as television, the internet and computer games. He has some strong recommendations for reducing children’s screen time, from toddlers to teenagers – and adults, too.

Obviously he is less worried by educational television programmes and even some educational computer games or mobile apps, but still recommends strictly limiting all screen time for kids.

TV has been an easy “babysitter” for years now, aided even further with DVDs, Netflix and so on. But computer, tablet and mobile screens engender more worry, in what has been put down as merely the latest generational complaint – “fresh expressions of horrible and timeless anxieties … a tried and true form of advanced-age self-care”.

The current generation of children in most Western societies spends more time in front of a screen than any before it. A study back in 2010 – before even the phenomenal rise of Apple’s iPad and other tablets – estimated that by the age of 10 children had access to an average of five screens in their lives. That number, Sigman suggests, has almost certainly risen since.

In addition to the main family TV, for example, many young children have their own bedroom telly along with portable computer game consoles (Nintendo, PlayStation, Xbox), smartphone, family computer and a laptop and/or a tablet computer.

By the age of seven the average child will have spent a full year of 24-hour days watching recreational screen media, claims Sigman. Over the course of childhood, children spend more time watching TV than they spend in school.

More screens means more consumption, and more medical problems argues Dr Sigman.

Screen time effect on academic grades

In 2015 Cambridge University researchers recorded the activities of more than 800 14-year-olds and analysed their GCSE results at 16. Those spending an extra hour a day on screens (TV, computer, games console, phone) saw a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall.

On average, the 14-year-olds said they spent four hours of their leisure time each day watching TV or in front of a computer.

An additional hour of screen-time each day was associated with 9.3 fewer GCSE points at 16 – the equivalent of dropping a grade in two subjects. Two extra hours of screen-time was associated with 18 fewer points – or dropping a grade in four subjects. Even if pupils spent more time studying, more time spent watching TV or online, still harmed their results, the analysis suggested.

Establish screen time rules for the whole family

So how much screen time is healthy for a 7 year-old, 10 year old, even 1, 2 or 3 year old? How much TV should a child watch? How many hours in front of a computer? You may be be shocked at too how much time in front of a screen has an adverse effect on a child’s health and development.

Parents who want to reduce their children’s screen time need to establish rules to reduce the risk of later health and psychological issues.

Sigman admits that there is a lack of clarity of advice, but points to a number of governmental advice points on the maximum amount of time a child should spend in front of a screen.

In 2013 the US Department of Health recommended that children under two years of age should not be in front of a screen at all, and over that age the maximum leisure screen time should be no more than two hours a day.

The French government has even banned digital terrestrial TV aimed at all children under three, while Australia and Canada have similar recommendations and guidelines.

Harvard clinical psychologist and school consultant, Catherine Steiner-Adair (author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age) has studied the impact of digital technology on infant brain development. A baby’s brain is hardwired to learn language, emotions and how to regulate them. Steiner believes there is no productive role technology can play in the life of a baby under two years.

Taiwanese parents are now legally obligated to monitor their children’s screen time. The Taiwanese government can levy £1,000 fines on parents of children under the age of 18 who are using electronic devices for extended periods of times. Similar measures exist in China and South Korea that aims to limit screen time to a healthy level.

The UK government has recently backtracked on a 2008 guidance that children should be exposed to technology and computers from a very young age, but there is currently no medical or governmental guidelines on screen time in the UK. The advice from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) is that children should have TV-free days, or have two-hour limits on the time spent in front of screens.

In a 2012 report on media consumption in the UK Ofcom estimated that the average 3-4-year-old spends three hours a day in front of a screen. This rises to four hours for ages 5-7, 4.5 hours by ages 8-11, and 6.5 hours for teenagers.

The report also found that older children are spending more time online and are more likely to go online alone, children aged 12-15 are spending more time online (rising from 14.9 hours a week to 17.1 hours) and spend as much time in a week using the internet as they do watching television. Up to 43 percent of kids are also more likely to mostly use the internet in their bedrooms.

Children who use the internet mostly alone comprise one in seven internet users aged 5-7 (14%), one in four aged 8-11 (24%) and over half of those aged 12-15 (55%).

Children are going online via a wider range of devices. Internet access using a PC or laptop is increasingly being supplemented by access through other devices. All age groups are more likely in 2012 to go online using a tablet computer, and children aged 5-7 and 12-15 are also more likely to go online using a mobile phone.

It’s telling that Apple’s Steve Jobs didn’t allow his kids to play with iPads at all. Steve was a bit of an extremist, but limiting screen time should be at the front of every parent’s mind – and that includes their own screen time in front of children. Steiner-Adair found that babies showed signs of distress when they looked to a parent for a reassuring connection and discovered the parent is distracted by technology. Her research found that 70 percent of kids think their parents spend too much time on devices, and accuse their parents of double standards.

Parents know that to establish rules for their children they need to be roles models too. So that means putting your phone down when around the kids, and trying not to eat every meal in front of the TV. 

We should look out for “technology-based interruptions in parent–child interactions” – a phenomenon known as “technoference”, which seems to correlate with children being more prone to whining, sulking, restlessness, frustration and outbursts of temper.

Apps to limit screen time for kids

There a few apps that parents can install to actually limit the time their children spend on a computer and/or mobile screen.

British-based ScreenLimit is the only cross-platform/device (iOS, Android, Amazon Kindle Fire, and Windows) solution that we’ve seen. ScreenLimit lets parents remotely manage their children’s screen time from a smartphone, tablet or web browser. Each child has a daily time limit (shown via a countdown) that allows them to switch between multiple devices on the same timer ensuring that they can’t use more screen time than they’ve been allocated. Read more in our Best Parental Control Software round up.

Using ScreenLimit children can also earn extra screen time by completing set tasks (eg. brushing teeth, cleaning room, making bed, etc) as well as being penalised for less happy events. Devices and apps can be blocked with one click. Educational apps and websites can be whitelisted so they don’t use up the child’s precious screen time allocation. ScreenLimit is currently in beta version but can be downloaded now; you can try it for free for 1,000 active minutes, and later buy for £2.99/month or an annual or lifetime price. One subscription for a family covers up to 10 children on unlimited devices. More details at ScreenLimit

Other screen-limiting apps include OurPact (a parental control app for iPhones, iPads, and iPods) and Screen Time (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Android and Kindle Fire).

children watching TV screen time guidelines

Addiction dangers of too much screen time early in life

“Early screen viewing is likely to lead to long periods of viewing for the rest of your life,” says Sigman. “The way you view screens when you are young forms the habits you pick up for ever after it seems.”

An early taste for entertainment screen media can lead to changes in the brain that stay with you for life – a life that may be shorter as a result.

Like other addictions screen time creates significant changes in brain chemistry – most notably, in the release of dopamine. This neurotransmitter – also known as the pleasure chemical – is central to addictions from sugar to cocaine. Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, calls screens “electronic cocaine” and in China researchers tag them “digital heroin.”

“Dopamine is produced when we see something that is interesting or new, but it also has a second function. Dopamine is also the neurochemical involved in most addictions – it’s the reward chemical.

“There are concerns among neuroscientists that this dopamine being produced every single day for many years – through for example playing computer games – may change the reward circuitry in a child’s brain and make them more dependent on screen media,” warns Sigman.

(If you want to see some head-scratchingly weighty, early scientific research on computer games and dopamine release, check out this 1998 research paper from the Division of Neuroscience and Psychological Medicine, Imperial College School of Medicine.)

In her study of “Internet Addiction” by Dr. Kimberly Young suggests that 18 percent of college-age internet users in the US suffer from tech addiction.

On the perils of too much screen time Sigman has investigated the extent to which time online may be displacing face-to-face contact, and that lack of social connection is associated with physiological changes, increased incidence of illness and higher premature mortality.

Children and computer games risks

Dangers of childhood computer gaming

Think about the type of games children are getting addicted to playing. The narrative of a game is an important factor, as some – Grand Theft Auto being the obvious example – clearly lead to a lack of impulse control, and potential neuro-chemical changes in the release of dopamine.

“Providing a child with a lot of novelty may produce higher levels of dopamine in a child’s brain, making the child seek more and more screen time to satisfy their need for more dopamine,” says Sigman.

An article in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse suggested that “computer game playing may lead to long-term changes in the reward circuitry that resemble the effects of substance dependence”.

“Computer game addicts or gamblers show reduced dopamine response to stimuli associated with their addiction presumably due to sensitization.”

Games in a virtual world also lead to a false sense of competence. Children need to base their lives on reality not fake, virtual worlds, says Sigman.

Sigman is also sceptical about the supposed benefits of computer game play, such as better hand-eye co-ordination. There may well be improved eye-hand-keyboard-mouse dexterity but many reports of such benefits are sponsored by interested games and tech companies, he claims.

Fast use of a games console controller is of little use outside of the gaming environment. And the reduction in sustained attention is a far greater loss.

On the other hand Robert Hannigan, the former head of the UK Government’s electronic spy agency, says that parents fear an online world where they understand less than their children: “Parental guilt is driven by a failure to appreciate that life online and ‘real’ life are not separate: they are all part of the same experience. Millennials understand this. Gaming and social media can be as sociable as mooching around the streets with a group of friends was once.”

Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of ‘The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age’, disagrees that increased screen time is good for children and young adults. Children who are heavy users of electronics may become adept at multitasking, she argues, but they lose the ability to focus on what is most important – a trait critical to the deep thought and problem solving needed in life.

tablets and education kids computers school nursery

Screen time effects on educational development

Children’s cognitive development is two years down on what it was 30 years ago because children have lost both concrete and abstract thinking.

Today’s children have less idea of weight and length measurements because the more time spent in virtual worlds, the less they are involved in the real world. This is the finding from two expert reports from 2007 and 2009: ‘Thirty years on – a large anti-Flynn effect? The Piagetian test Volume & Heaviness norms’ by Michael Shayer and Denise Ginsburg.

Sigman is critical of schools over-use of technology, which he blames on the multi-billion-pound education-tech industry forcing its products on schools and even nurseries on the unfounded fear that children suffer without using the latest digital devices.

“Until we know better, I advise precaution,” says Sigman. “Keep technology and screens away from the under threes, and set limits on all ages after that.”

With so many dangers associated with too much screen time for children, and little fixed advice from health authorities or governments Dr Sigman offers his own guidelines (see below) for reducing the risks.

Keep reading for screen-time tips for parents…

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