Expert Articles

Screening The Screens

Author: Mary Ann HOOD
Senior Lecturer, Yew Chung College of Early Childhood Education

We live in a digital age and children are growing up in a digital world. As such, we cannot escape the reality of screens in our lives. Screens are everywhere. Waiting for the bus, there is a screen telling us what time the next bus will arrive. In a restaurant, the menu is on a screen and ordering is often done via an App. At the doctors, a screen shows us how to keep healthy by washing our hands and reminds us when our turn is coming up. Cars have satellite navigation systems built into the dashboard … and we have not even started speaking about mobile phones, television, i-Pads and other devices with screens. In many ways, these screens enhance our lives and we could not carry out our daily lives without them. This is especially true in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic when screens are being used for children’s schooling when they are unable to attend in-person classes.

But perhaps you feel that children spend too much time gazing at screens? Do you worry that your child may become addicted to the screen? Do you wonder how much screen time is beneficial? Do you think about how to keep your child ‘safe’ from screens? If you answer yes to these questions, you are not alone!

One of the most common conflicts between parents and young children involves screen time. Children want more and parents want them to have less! To complicated matters, parents worry about how much screen time children should have, while often resorting to allowing children more and more screen time in order to ‘keep the peace.’ Of course, screen time can be educational and also help to support children’s social development but this needs to be managed carefully. Quality and quantity are key concepts that must be considered.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AACAP, 2022) too much screen time may lead to:

  • Sleep problems
  • Lower grades in school
  • Reading fewer books
  • Less time with family and friends
  • Not enough outdoor or physical activity
  • Weight problems
  • Mood problems
  • Poor self-image and body image issues
  • Fear of missing out
  • Less time learning other ways to relax and have fun

In terms of recommended screen time for young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that up to the age of 18 months, young children should have no screen time except for communication such as video calls to a parent who is away from home working, grandparents who are unable to see their grandchildren because they live far away or calls to other members of the family such as aunts and cousins. At this young age, children do not benefit from screen time and they need hand-on experiences and interaction in order to develop optimally. Allowing very young children access to screens encourages passivity which is detrimental to their holistic development. Unstructured play time is what young children need. 

From 18 to 24 months, the recommendation is that children are introduced slowly to high quality educational programmes, such as Sesame Street, that they watch with an adult who interacts with them and the programme. In other words, the child must not be placed in front of the screen alone. The advice is that you should talk to your child about what they are seeing and hearing.

From 24 to 60 months, it is suggested that children are allowed a maximum of one hour of screen time in total per day. The advice about no allowing solo watching remains.

It is strongly advised that there is no screen time during meals or before bedtime. During mealtimes, children should be focused on their food and interacting with the members of the family. Screen time before bed is known to be over-stimulating and children may struggle to fall asleep. It is highly recommended that you keep screens out of your child’s bedroom.

For all young children, try to encourage using screens to build connections with friends and family. In addition, find creative ways of using screens – for example, to play educational games and read e-books together. Screen time should never take the place of active play time. 

Parents should always preview any content that children are going to be exposed to. It goes without saying that violent content should be avoided. Read the reviews that the content has received and ask for advice from other parents about what is recommended. An organization called Common Sense Media has information about programmes and reviews to help decision making about what is appropriate for children.

It is also very important for parents to set a good example regarding screen habits. Ask yourself if you are guilty of some bad screen habits … remember, your child is looking to you as an example of how to behave when it comes to screens.

Let’s give the final word to the latest research. A new study found that 24-month-old children who spent less than 60 minutes looking at screens each day and those who engaged in at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity had better executive function than their peers (McMath et al., 2022). Executive function includes the ability to remember, plan, pay attention, shift between tasks and regulate one’s thoughts and behaviour. This research finding provides us with an excellent reason to limit screen time and increase physical activity for children.

So, let’s put down those screens and get moving for better health and holistic development.


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Screening The Screens