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The Shocking Truth Behind Screen Time Effects

Updated: 4 days ago

As parents, many of us worry about the amount of screen time our children are exposed to. Are they spending too much time watching TV, playing video games or apps, or browsing the internet? Does this exposure have negative effects on their development?

Pathfinder Health is here to provide some clarity and help you find the right balance.

In this article, we'll take a look at some of the research on screen time and discuss the possible implications. We'll also provide some realistic tips for managing screen time for your family.

In this article:

How is screen time used today?

What counts as "screen time"?

For purposes of child development, "screen time" refers to a child's use and consumption of television, video games, smartphone apps, social media, and any other digital media content.

"Screen time" generally does not include video chatting with friends or relatives or reading eBooks with a parent or caregiver (as long as the eBooks do not have sound or visual effects).

Both of these activities involve human interaction in a way that regular screen time usually does not.

How much screen time are children getting?

According to surveys by Common Sense Media, children's average daily screen time is as follows:

Today, the average child begins interacting with digital media at 4 months.

And thanks to the prevalence of smartphones and smart home devices, the amount and variety of content has exploded, along with the times and places a child can use a screen.

This is a drastic change over the last few decades. To provide some perspective, in 1970 the average child began to regularly watch TV when they were 4 years old.

The vast majority of this time is spent watching TV and videos. The amounts of time spent consuming other types of content break down to:

The effects of screen time on children

The science behind screen time

Our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter also known as the “feel-good” hormone, in response to rewards and stimulation.

TV, video games, social media, and other activities that produce an instant payoff are considered “high dopamine activities” (HDAs), just like eating junk food.

The brain releases more dopamine when it does not have to wait long for a reward. Because HDAs make us feel good, children can struggle to end screen time in favor of “low dopamine activities” (LDAs), which include looking at books, building, crafts, and playing outside.

As a result, they might spend hours binging on screens when a parent does not step in to impose limitations. Over time children develop a higher tolerance to dopamine and need even more stimulation. This can result in them being even less interested in LDAs and feeling bored and irritable when they are not using digital media.

This explains why screen time is so appealing to children–and adults!--and why it can be so difficult to limit it.

Now, let’s look more closely at some of the negative effects that excessive screen time can have on your child.

1. Insufficient sleep

We all know that not getting enough sleep can make us grumpy. But did you realize it can also impact your child's health?

Young children who receive more media exposure or have a TV, computer, or mobile device in their bedroom generally go to bed later and have fewer hours of restful sleep. This is even true for babies--screens can leave them overstimulated and cause them to miss the sleep required for their development.

Sleep is one of the most important contributors to your child's health and well-being. Lack of sleep has harmful effects on both mental and physical abilities—from difficulty concentrating, diminished memory, and irritability to headaches and higher risk of hypertension and obesity.

Children who get enough sleep, on the other hand, do better in school, have stronger immune systems, and experience better mental health.

2. Delayed language development

Having conversations with your child--even your baby--is essential for their language development.

In fact, researchers have found that young children should hear approximately 21,000 words each day. Just by talking to your child, you help them develop vocabulary and communication skills such as listening, memory, and speaking clearly. And these conversations have a long-term impact.

A groundbreaking University of Kansas study determined that a child’s language skills at age 3 predict their language and reading skills at age 9 or 10, which in turn sets them up to succeed in high school, college, and later in life.

Very young children simply do not learn language skills from passively watching television. Beginning at birth, they need to have back-and-forth conversations in real life, including using facial expressions and other reciprocal reactions.

In fact, a University of Kansas study found that 86% to 98% of the words used by children from birth to age three came from their parents’ vocabularies--not from TV shows.

Another study actually found that children who start watching TV before their first birthday and watch more than 2 hours a day were 6 times more likely to have a language delay.

3. Delayed social and cognitive development

In some cases, watching too much TV during infancy and preschool years can delay a child's development of social skills.

The major reason is that screen time takes away from interactions with family members.

When a child--or parent--is overly focused on a TV or smart phone, they are missing countless opportunities for bonding and learning to relate to others.

Without a "responsive, emotional connection" with the adults around them and practice reading social cues, children miss out on a major part of their social development.

And even beyond social development, young children learn best by exploring their environment and watching the adults in their lives. They learn by imitating the things they see and experience everyday.

This is why too much screen time can be detrimental to a child's overall learning.

When a child is glued to a screen, they're not engaged with the world around them. They aren't able to observe and learn from the everyday activities that are so important for their development, but instead have a kind of "tunnel vision" focused on the screen.

4. Increased risk of obesity

Excessive use of digital media during preschool years has been linked to weight gain and increased risk of childhood obesity.

This is partly because too much screen time leaves children with fewer hours for the active physical play that they need to be healthy. But researchers have found that the primary reason is the effect that screen time has on eating habits.

Children tend to overeat during screen time--what we think of as "mindless eating"--and may compensate by eating fewer healthy foods the rest of the day.

Moreover, more screen time leads to more exposure to food advertising, which has a negative impact on children's food preferences and food intake.

5. Behavior problems

Studies have shown that violent content on TV or video games can contribute to behavior problems in children.

Exposure to violent content can desensitize children to violence and even lead them to imitate on-screen characters and use violence to solve problems in their own lives.

This can cause significant problems at home, at school, and in social situations.

On the flip side, there is also evidence that on-screen violence can have the opposite effect and actually make children more sensitive to its effects, leading them to become agitated and withdrawn. In severe cases, it can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For these reasons, it's best to be extremely careful about the content that you allow your child to consume--it can affect them in ways you might not anticipate.

6. Increased inattentiveness

Screen time is also associated with an increase in inattentive and impulsive symptoms similar to those found in children with ADHD.

Although studies have not found that excessive screen time actually causes ADHD, it is apparent that children who already have attention challenges are naturally more drawn to the fast pace of TV shows, apps, and video games and the dopamine hit they deliver.

Additionally, excessive screen time takes time away from activities that encourage children to flex their patience and attention spans and provide their own entertainment, which can worsen any inattention problems.

Screen time recommendations

How much screen time?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has published recommendations for the amount of screen time that children should have at different ages, ranging from no screen time to no more than two hours per day.

Quality of screen time

But the amount of screen time is not the only consideration. Parents should also keep in mind the quality of the content that their children are watching/playing.

Here are some important questions to ask yourself:

1. Is it intended for young children?

First of all, you should consider whether a show, game, or app is intended or suitable for a young child.

This does not only mean vetting a show or game for violence or other adult content, although you should definitely do both of those things, and use parental controls to make sure your children don't access inappropriate content on their own.

It also means considering whether your child will understand what is happening enough to gain something from it. It is possible for a child to zone out in front of the TV and simply stare at the flashing lights without comprehending the story.

2. Does it engage your child?

Relatedly, ask if the show or game invites your child to participate in some way, use their imagination, or think about a solution to a problem, or if it allows them to passively watch.

3. Is it educational?

"Educational" does not have to mean that a show, game or app teaches children their letters and numbers, although that is one type of educational programming.

Educational shows and games also help children identify their own feelings, provide strategies for dealing with emotions, encourage role-playing for social situations, and expose children to different kinds of people and situations.

Be thoughtful and do some research when choosing educational media for your child.

Many of the "educational" apps found in app stores have limited potential to teach young children, for a variety of reasons.

First, most focus on rote memorization skills.

Moreover, most were created without input from educational or developmental experts.

Finally, the features included in apps to attract and engage a child's attention (namely sound and visual effects) can actually make it harder for a child to understand the content and distract them from engaging with an adult while using the app, which is necessary for them to learn.

Screen time real talk

At this point in the article, many of you may be feeling guilty about the amount of screen time that your children have been exposed to, especially in the last few years of pandemic living.

Others may be feeling defensive and thinking, "My child keeps getting sick and having to stay home--how am I supposed to get any work done if I have to limit screen time?" or "I need some uninterrupted time to cook dinner or do other household chores!" or even "I've been playing and chasing after my kids all day and I'm exhausted--I just need a little quiet time when no one is asking me for anything!"

We at Pathfinder Health get it. It can be extremely helpful to let kids watch some TV or play on your phone and it is unrealistic for many families to reduce or eliminate screen time entirely.

But there are ways to make that time higher quality so your children receive a benefit while being entertained.

In a nutshell:

1. Engage with your child

When possible, be an active participant in your child's screen time by watching TV or playing video games with them.

This creates many opportunities for discussion, which encourages your child's verbal ability. For example, you could ask them to predict what will happen next, like you might do when reading together.

Or you could talk to your child about a similarity between a show and a real life experience. Even laughing together at something funny is an opportunity for bonding with your child.

This is particularly true for very young children. Research has found that toddlers can learn new words from instructional videos and apps, but only if a parent watches with them and repeats the words with them, essentially using the video as a teaching tool.

2. Emphasize quality content

As we discussed above, not all children's shows, games, and apps are created equal. When you can't watch or play with your child, make sure that they are consuming something that will provide some benefit, not just a series of YouTube videos.

Some examples of quality media for young children include, but are certainly not limited to:

3. Consider non-screen alternatives

When you need to keep your child entertained for a period of time, consider offering options for independent play that don’t involve a screen.

Fun options include:

  • Coloring and activity books or markers/crayons and paper

  • Puzzles

  • Play doh

  • Magnetic tiles, Duplos, or other building blocks

  • Sensory boxes (be careful with small objects if your child is very young)

All of these activities have the potential to keep kids entertained for hours.

You can increase their appeal by playing with your child at first so that they understand what to do and can become engaged.

Or, if you are doing household chores, engage your child and give them tasks to do!

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the recommended screen time by age?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under 18 months have no screen time (except for video chatting), children 18-24 months have very limited screen time, and children from 2-5 years have less than 1 hour per day (not counting screen use for school).

2. What are the negative effects of screen time?

The negative effects of excessive screen time for children include:

  • Decreased cognitive function and attention span

  • Delayed language development from fewer real life conversations

  • Delayed social development from missed opportunities to bond and socialize with others

  • Higher risk of obesity from decreased physical activity and increased “mindless eating”

  • Behavior problems from exposure to violent content or anxiety from such content

3. What are the symptoms of too much screen time?

Symptoms of too much screen time include:

  • Difficulty sleeping due to stimulation from screens

  • Headaches and eye strain

  • Less physical activity and lower energy levels

  • Overstimulation, leading to aggressiveness, tantrums, and irritability

  • Emotional effects, such as moodiness

  • Weight gain and related chronic health conditions

4. Does screen time make ADHD worse?

It can. Children who already have issues with inattentiveness are naturally drawn to fast paced TV shows, apps, and video games. However, excessive screen time takes time away from other activities that promote patience and can help build their attention span, such as reading.

5. How do I limit my child's screen time?

Consider making a family media plan that sets out the house rules for (1) what type of media is allowed, (2) when it's allowed, and (3) how long it can be used. Also be sure to provide lots of opportunities for other types of play, especially active and creative play.

6. Is there an app to limit screen time?

There are a variety of options for smartphones and tablets that can set limits on screen time generally or on specific apps, filter inappropriate content, and block games and apps. Good options include Apple’s Screen Time and Google Family Link or Qustodio for Android users.

7. Can my child turn off Screen Time?

Screen Time can only be turned off by entering the passcode. However, tech-savvy kids have figured out numerous workarounds to circumvent Screen Time. For this reason, you should not rely solely on this feature to limit your child’s use of screens or restrict their content.

The Takeaway

There are many compelling reasons to limit the amount of screen time that your child is exposed to. Excessive digital media can have a negative impact on their physical and mental health.

But Pathfinder Health recognizes that parenting is tough and sometimes a bit of screen time can be a helpful tool. Just remember to opt for higher-quality programs, apps, and games that can actually help your child’s development.

Ultimately, the most important thing is balance. Make sure that you spend as much quality time as possible with your child, encourage them to get plenty of physical activity, engage them in conversation and activities, and expose them to new things.

A well-rounded set of diverse experiences is the best way to help your child develop.

Download the Pathfinder Health app for more essential articles about child development and 600+ developmental activities.


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5. Chonchaiya W, Pruksananonda C. Television viewing associated with delayed language development. 02 June 2008.

6. Hart, B & Risley, TR. The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3 (2003, spring). American Educator, pp. 4-9.

7. Robinson, TN, Banda JA, Hale L. Screen Media Exposure and Obesity in Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2017 Nov; 140(Suppl 2): S97–S101. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-1758K

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