Screen time: What you need to know

We have long been advised to limit TV and device use for preschoolers. New research, however, suggests it’s the nature of screen time rather than the amount that matters. By VICTORIA TAIT.

We have heard time and again about the potential ramifications screens can have on children as they develop. Even at a very young age, the amount of screen time children crave is accelerating, with the average time 0-8-year-olds spend in front of a screen tripling in recent years from 15 minutes up to 48 minutes per day.

Until a few years ago, parenting advice centred around limiting screen time for children to two hours per day to avoid detrimental effects, but new research now indicates that it’s the nature of the content they’re watching that has a greater effect upon their development.

Guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend a maximum of one hour of ‘high-quality programming’ for children under six, but after that simply encourages parents to ‘place consistent limits on the time spent using media’ and designate screen-free time as a family.

Studies have shown that content from TV can catch and hold the attention of babies from the age of 6-14 months, although they can only imitate, rather than absorb, the actions they see on screen. By 18 months, babies can remember short sequences, but it’s not until the age of two that toddlers begin to understand the content. Research indicates that toddlers learn best from face-to-face interactions at this age, but can begin to develop cognitive skills and positive racial attitudes from exposure to quality educational programming. So where does this information leave us as parents?

5 tips for mindful use of screen time

  1. Know what your children are watching by being involved, which will also help them to connect on-screen content with real life. This, in turn, can help build language and cognitive skills, such as attention, memory and thinking. Shared-screen time also avoids the disadvantages of solitary viewing.
  2. Curate children’s screen activities by prioritising educational content or apps, which can also help limit their exposure to advertising. Pay attention to what your child is watching and ensure messages about gender, body image, violence, diversity and social issues are appropriate.
  3. Combine touchscreen use with creative or active play for variety.
  4. Be purposeful in your reasons for allowing screen-time; spending time together, encouraging sharing, or learning about something new.
  5. Limit screen time in public places and during family routines, such as at meals. Family times are prime opportunities for
    social development.

As technology becomes an increasingly central part of our children’s lives, it’s important to remember that kids under five learn best from live interactions with family members and caregivers. Being mindful of screen time doesn’t mean banning it altogether, just making sure it best supports children as they grow. Laughing and relaxing with Peppa Pig, or learning about the universe with Storybots can all add value to their lives, so the key is to be as involved in their screen time as we would be in all other aspects of their development.