By Chelsea Miller, BScN, RN
Screens are everywhere these days. They’re in your pocket, your living room, restaurants, schools, and even daycares. Screens are unavoidable in our growing technological world, however, screen time under the age of five can be detrimental to a child’s development and psychological well-being. Here are five reasons screen time should be limited in children under five.
1. Excessive screen time early in life can lead to poor lifestyle choices later in life, such as more sedentary time
Parenting is tough. The sleepless nights, toddler tantrums and picky eating is enough to exhaust a parent. Plopping your child in front of the television may seem like an easy way to entertain your child, and if you asked said child I bet they’d agree. Nonetheless, excessive screen time (more than one hour per day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics) can have a negative impact on a young child’s lifestyle choices later in life. Children who spend more time in front of screens (including but not limited to TVs, tablets and cell phones) tend to be less physically active later in life, since healthy habits are established early on in life and tend to carry on into adolescence and adulthood.
Children who spend more time on screens are also less likely to use their imagination to find ways to entertain themselves, since the screen in front of them is effortlessly doing that for them. Active Healthy Kids Canada reported in 2014 that children three to five years old spend an average of two hours per day in front of screens. That’s two hours out of the day that they aren’t outside playing or engaging in healthier activities.
2. Screen time is directly associated with less sleep and poor sleep quality
Today’s children sleep less than they did a century ago, and twenty to thirty percent of parents note that their child experiences difficulty falling or staying asleep. This is likely due, in part, to the overwhelming amount of time children spend in front of TVs, laptops and other media sources. According to eight separate studies, sleep quality was worse when the child was allowed screen time in the evening. Screens emit blue/green light, which directly affects melatonin production, otherwise known as the “sleep hormone,” and a child’s circadian rhythm.
This is even more worrisome for newborns who are unable to produce melatonin on their own yet (so you may want to reconsider using your phone to keep you alert during those night feeds). Adequate and quality sleep in the early years is crucial to development, so make sure you’re providing plenty of exposure to natural light, especially in the afternoon. Afternoon light exposure has been shown to increase melatonin production in the evening, therefore regulating the circadian rhythm, leading to less nighttime awakenings.
3. Children learn from face-to-face interaction with parents and caregivers
Young children require interactions with parents and caregivers in order to learn essential life skills, such as language, emotions, and creative thinking. Children learn through interactive play, storytelling, and pretend. Going for a walk outside and identifying plants, animals and vehicles is much more likely to teach your child about the world around them than a TV show on a tablet. Engaging with your child through real-life scenarios is also a way to bond and strengthen your relationship.
4. Screen time can lead to hyperactivity and ADHD
In a Canadian 2019 study, children between two and five years old who watched more than two hours of television per day were 7.7 times more likely to develop ADHD symptoms than those who watched less than half an hour per day. It is estimated that rapidly moving objects on screens can make young children overly excited, leading to hyperactive behaviors. Shows or games with lots of bright, contrasting colors and quickly changing scenes can easily lead to overstimulation, therefore hyperactivity.
Young children are also less capable of self-regulating their emotions, so once they start acting hyper it is difficult for them to calm them down. ADHD is a growing concern in countries where screens are easily accessible, and when symptoms begin in early life it can lead to learning difficulties and social disorders down the road. Because developmentally appropriate, task-oriented play activities can be difficult for children with hyperactivity disorders, screen time is often a desirable activity, leading into a vicious cycle.
5. People are finding ways to inject “inappropriate” content into child-based programs
Hackers are a real problem in today’s society. How often do you receive spam emails or phone calls asking for your credit card information? Similarly, there has been an increase in the amount of inappropriate content finding its way into childrens’ programming. There have also been videos uploaded of seemingly appropriate cartoons, however the characters are engaging in disturbing scenes and spewing inappropriate language. In the popular YouTube Kids app, the alleged child-friendly version of the video streaming powerhouse, children as young as two are being shown weight loss videos, tutorials on skin bleaching, and even firearm and drug use. Make sure you always monitor what your children are watching, and encourage them to come to you if they see anything out of the ordinary.
How can you reduce the harm in screen time?
Completely avoiding screen time is not always possible. Here are a few ways you can help minimize the risk:
The Bottom Line
Screen time use as children grow is unavoidable. We live in a tech world, and it’s only going to keep growing. Even schools utilize laptops, tablets and televisions to provide educational content and entertainment. However, screen time should be limited to children under the age of five. Excessive screen time has been shown to reduce physical activity, sleep quality and length, and even cause behavioral problems.
Conversely, it can be an effective tool when parents engage in screen time together and choose programs that are age-appropriate and not overly stimulating. Avoid more than thirty minutes per day if possible, and ensure your child has ample opportunity for play, outdoor time, and parent interaction.
Chelsea Miller, BScN, RN
October 24, 2023