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What’s the Deal with Screen Time?

It was Friday night, which meant that I was going out to eat at a restaurant with my husband and 4-month-old son. I hopped in the driver’s seat and my husband jumped in the back with the baby. Not long into the drive, I pulled up at a stoplight and looked over at the car next to me. I saw a few little ones in the back seat happily watching a movie on a portable DVD player, quiet as can be.

In comparison, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw my husband trying desperately to keep our little one happy by performing a very elaborate song and dance with the wide selection of baby toys that we brought along.

kids-watching-tv

Later, at the restaurant, I glanced over at the table next to us and saw two small children sitting peacefully at the table with their parents. The older child was quietly playing a game on his handheld gaming device and the younger one was watching a cartoon on his mother’s iPhone.

Back at our table, my husband and I were passing our little boy back and forth when he became fussy, making faces at him, helping him grab at different toys, talking to him, and anything else that would keep him content while we ate our meals. Our routine now is quite a bit different than the date nights of our past, but we wouldn’t change it for the world!

So which way is easier? Definitely not the way we do it. Would I have a more peaceful car ride if I propped a screen in front of my little one? Absolutely. Would I be in physical therapy for a shoulder injury from carrying my son around if I let him watch a movie when he got fussy instead of picking him up? Probably not. Would my life be easier with more screens? Yes! So why don’t I use them? Keep reading to find out.

What is Screen Time?

First we should probably talk about what qualifies as screen time. Obviously watching TV counts, but so does any other time your child spends looking at a screen. Do you hand your child your phone to keep him quiet in a waiting room? That screen time.

Screen time also includes watching movies on portable DVD players, playing games on a tablet or computer, browsing the internet, looking at a phone, etc. It doesn’t matter if your child is watching a video that will teach him to read at a ridiculously early age, playing an educational video game, or watching a cartoon. Screen time is screen time and the content is irrelevant.

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)

The American Academy of Pediatrics states on its website that children under the age of two years should not have any screen time at all. Did you catch that? No screen time for children under the age of 2 years! Older children and teens should be limited to one to two hours of screen time per day. Children older than 2 years (and teens) should have no more than 1-2 hours of screen time per day!

Does that seem shocking to you? It may, since the average American child spends seven hours per day on entertainment media, including phones, tablets, computers, TVs, and electronic devices. So why does the AAP recommend such strict limits? Because of the research currently available on the risks of screen time. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Research about Screen Time:

According to the AAP:

“Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.” You can read more about this on the AAP website here.

As a speech-language pathologist, I have a particular interest in the effects of screen time on language development. I have noticed that many of my clients with the most significant speech and language delays have strong addictions to screen time.

There are many studies that are beginning to link screen time with language delays, such as this one by Chonchaiya and Pruksananonda that found that children who began watching television before 12 months and who watched more than 2 hours of TV per day were six times more likely to have language delays! Yikes!!

What is a Screen-Bound Child Missing Out On?

The other danger of screen time is what the child is missing out on due to over-use of screens. Any moment spent in front of a screen is time taken away a different type of stimulus that children need to grow and develop as people. For example, time spent in front of a screen is time taken away from person-to-person interactions. These interactions teach children the complex social rules that govern how we interact and get along with others.

Screen time also takes away from time reading books. Reading to your children is one of the best ways to ensure good speech and language development later in life.

Screen-bound children also miss out on opportunities to physically play with toys, which is how they develop motor skills and learn about how the world works. For example, if I stack 16 blocks up in a single tower, they fall over. Boom! I just learned about gravity! Children learn through play and they need those experiences to develop and grow. Sure, they may know how to use an I-Pad by the time their 18 months old, but will they learn how to stack blocks and put together a simple puzzle?

Another important skill that these screen-bound children are missing the opportunity to learn is how to behave. Before screens, children had to learn how to behave in a restaurant at a very early age, lest their parents enforce strict punishments upon them for acting up in public. Now, when children go out into public, they are often so distracted by the electronic devices that they don’t have an opportunity to act up and find out which behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate. They also don’t have the chance to learn about good restaurant or shopping etiquette by observing their parents because they are too distracted. Transfixing a child with a screen until he is subdued is not the same as teaching a child good manners and how to behave.

But What Can I Do?

If you are concerned about your child’s addiction to screens, or if your child already has a speech or language delay, you can take action immediately. Start reducing the amount of time your child is allowed to be in front of screens and take note of any differences you see. These may be negative reactions at first (as you take away something he loves), but eventually you should see other improvements emerge. For more information about screen time, including how to take it away and what to do instead, check out my post about screen time and language development:

Sure, my family dinners are much more chaotic than those of the family at the next table over. Yes, our car rides can get a little…loud. And I’m sure that will only get worse as we enter the toddler years and start adding more kids to the mix. But for me, it is totally worth it. I know that parenting is hard but I also know that parenting a child with attention problems, sleep problems, learning difficulties, or language delays can be even harder. A few moments of peace for me now are simply not worth risking my child’s development now and in the future. We’ll continue our song and dance and the endless parade of toys and books. I hope you will join me!

Carrie Clark

Carrie Clark is a speech-language pathologist from Columbia, Missouri. Carrie runs her own private practice in Columbia but also owns and maintains the Speech and Language Kids website online, where she writes about fun activities that parents can do at home to improve their children's speech and language skills. Carrie also produces speech and language therapy games and printables, many of which can be downloaded for free!

43 comments

  • I limit screen time as well, however I also allow it to be extended (or even shortened) based on what works for my family. Gorgeous summer day? They get less than an hour. 18 hour car ride to florida? They definitely get more.

  • The kids now a days are more techy then we are. bouding their screen time can be really messy… but I am sure that is very much needed. And thh question is How to deal with it

  • We are trying to figure out a good balance right now. My toddler loves playing games on the iPad and reading books…. so it’s hard since I feel like he is learning! He knows his colors because of one of the apps!

  • I don’t have any kids myself, but we do have a 1 yr old niece. We plan things like going to parks and playing with old-school toys. We even plan on making bird houses and sling shots with her when she’s older. Technology will always be there, can’t get away from it now, but it’s important to remember the other things too! Thanks for the post.

  • I’ve always been pretty strict about screen time. I only allowed an hour a day, but they played and imagined and created the rest of the day so it was great!

  • My triplets are under 2 and they rarely ever see TV. But they have each other to play with, so they keep each other entertained. My daughter watched more, but she was the firstborn.

  • This is certainly an important topic you are tackling. You can always have your kids make up a tv show based on their favorite and perform it like a play. With writing a script, making costumes, and practicing the play before even doing it. It should keep them active for a while.

  • I’ve been struggling with this {myself & with my child} I really need to work on that. Especially on the days that the tv is on all day. It’s so easy to get caught up in it…time for a change!

  • We’re fighting the screen time thing ourselves now that we have Netflix on all our devices. They have gotten to the point they’d rather sit and watch a movie on their own instead of interacting with others. Putting a stop to it!

  • Very good article! I wish more parents would read this and get a clue on the dangers of using screens to manage behavior. I believe there is another element to this story that needs addressed. Not only do I see parents using screens to control their kids behavior in public places of all kinds, but also, I see parents using screens just as much as the kids. Just recently I was in a restaurant and noticed a family nearby with 3 kids. One about 6 months, one about 4 and the other 6 or 7 years of age. The PARENTS were both busy looking at their phones while their kids were acting out trying desperately to gain their parents attention. They were quick to hand them devices and before long the only person in the family without a screen in their face was the 6 month old. I see parents at parks focused on their phones while their kids are yelling, “Mommy, Mommy, watch me!” I see parents at stop lights (and sometimes driving 50 mph) looking down at their phones while their kids are doing the same in the back seat. How are kids going to learn that screen time is not good if the example being set for them is one of parents giving more attention to a device than to the child?

  • I agree with limited screen time especially in the first few years—my kids only got 1/2 hour in the morning and 1/2 hour TV before bed and 45 minutes of computer time to use through the day as they wished-HOUSE RULE for the first 5 years—We didn’t have any other devices at that time to take along so on road trips they read, out to eat they talked with us or colored on the placemat. Now that they are older their time isn’t limited as much–but they are involved with sports,school clubs, Church groups and still mantine Honor Roll grades–so I know limiting screen time WORKS!

  • I had my kids on a limited screen time when they were little…we didn’t have smart phones so it was 1/2 hour in the morning and 1/2 at night—the rest was free play; SURE wasn’t the easiest but I have kids that are involved with sports, school plays, church groups and have Honor Roll grades. So I KNOW limiting the screen time works.

  • Time and again we are reminded to be conscious of the amount of time our children spend on tv. but with iPad and iPhone and game consoles, it’s so easy to lose track of this habit. Thank you for sure this post is a wake up call to many including me

  • I never worried too much about screen time (as long as the shows were educational and aimed at preschoolers) until I read the fact that is also included in this post – when kids are watching TV, they’re missing out on free play, using their imagination, playing pretend, being superheroes, reading, drawing, all the things that help them learn. Since realizing that, I’ve limited screen time. She has her whole life to watch TV. But these early years are crucial for her to grow and develop! Great points!

  • I don’t have children so I really don’t know nor have I read the literature on this topic. However-how can you limit screen time when the schools themselves are requiring students (especially in the higher grades) to submit homework on computers-do research on computers etc.

    • That’s a great point, Michele! This is a very tricky thing that must be balanced with care. Obviously, children need to do their homework and many schools are moving more toward computer-based school work. The research is focused mostly on younger children and their exposure to screen time so the restrictions grow less severe as you look at older children. The rate of development in young children is very rapid which is why they need to take advantage of every moment to interact with their environment. The development slows down significantly as they age so there are less detrimental effects on older children (such as older teenagers) with screen time. I believe there also needs to be more studies that explore whether doing school work on a screen has the same detrimental effects as watching something or playing games.

  • Right on! Sure, I use the electronic babysitter sometime, but only at home. Oh, and long car rides. I may want to throw something at a resturant when the kids are acting out, but at least they’re eating dinner with me and their dad rather than mindlessly spooning grub into their mouths while they watch some show.

    • That’s great! It is important to make sure our children know how to be entertained or entertain themselves without screens, too! If they are complaining too much, then maybe they need some help finding things that interest them outside of screens.

    • Hi, Taylor! That recommendation for no screen time under two years comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics and is based on research. It is not just my personal opinion.

  • such a nice post! my daughter goes to school 6am to 3pm and after her noon snack she watch through her own laptop in her bedroom but she only only have 2 hours to do that. and everything should be turn off like 5-5:30pm and then she does her homework and do some other barbie things hehe

  • My kids do gain a lot of screen time, but that has a lot to do with the fact that they are in school via an online public school system. They also do a lot of reviews of many online programs for the blog. They do play video games a couple days a month if they behave. They also gain lots of outside time, time to play with toys, and lots of family interaction.

    I personally don’t agree with all of these studies, but to each their own. I think that the types of screen time does make a difference.

    • That’s an area that definitely requires more research! I haven’t come across any research that explores whether attending school online has the same detrimental effects as other types of screen time. However, I’m sure that with the rise of online schooling there will be more research looking into this soon.

  • We turn the DVD players on in our van if we are going somewhere far (an hour or more drive), the kids usually end up falling asleep shortly after a movie starts anyway and they only get 30 mins a day each on a phone or tablet. Our downfall is tv time. They always want to watch tv. This summer I’m trying to spend as much time outside as possible to break that habit.

  • I didn’t let my kids watch tv for the first year. I got a TON of comments about this. I’m glad we did it that way. Though I’m guilty of letting my son watch movies on long car trips, we limit their overall time.

    • A little bit of screen time here and there (especially in dire circumstances like riding in a car for a long time) is no big deal at all! Just as long as they’re not spending too much time with screens the rest of the time.

  • Interesting post. There is always conflict when it comes to this topic. I have to tend to agree with you though. Just have the children listen to music or something like that in the car etc. Thanks for sharing.

    • The big issues always raise conflict! That’s why it’s worth talking about and worth bringing to people’s attention. The important thing here is that we’re mindful of what we’re exposing our children to. Thanks for your support!

  • About Author

    Carrie Clark

    Carrie Clark is a speech-language pathologist from Columbia, Missouri. Carrie runs her own private practice in Columbia but also owns and maintains the Speech and Language Kids website online, where she writes about fun activities that parents can do at home to improve their children's speech and language skills. Carrie also produces speech and language therapy games and printables, many of which can be downloaded for free!

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