Screen time. How much is too much? Is it harmful or unhealthy for babies and toddlers? Should they be looking at screens, at all, if it can be avoided?
Every week, it seems, there are headlines saying screen time is harmful – the latest of which come from a Finnish study (March 2021) suggesting an association between spending ‘extensive time on electronic media’ as a toddler and difficulties, at the age of 5, with difficulty making friends.
It’s worth noting that the Finnish study was purely observational and had no objective measures to base its findings on. But we also know that, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines (April 2019) that it’s recommended that babies and toddlers under the age of 2 should not be left to passively watch TV or other screens, and that 2 to 4 year-olds should have a daily screen-time limit of an hour or less.
And yet, UK experts from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have been quick to point out that there is little evidence screen use for children is harmful in itself – and that the WHO guidelines were aimed at tackling child inactivity and obesity-related ill health, rather than protecting children from any specific harms caused by screen time.
No wonder we’re all worried. In our recent Instagram poll of 183 parents, over 59% said they worry about the time their child spends in front of a screen.
So, we’ve examined the evidence presented in the latest studies on the subject (there are a few), asked the experts and found out what real mums and dads are doing now with their toddlers and young children.
Is there a ‘toxic effect’ for toddlers who have a lot of screen time?
A Canadian study, published by the journal JAMA Pediatrics in January 2019, has concluded that toddlers spending lots of time on screens could damage their ability to develop language and social skills.
The BBC reports that the study followed 2,500 2-year-olds using data taken from their mums, who were given questionnaires to fill in about their children’s skill sets at ages 2, 3 and 5.
In addition to finding that screen time for these little ones was affecting their development, it suggested that parents should put caps on screen time…
The results showed that 2-year-olds spent, on average, 17 hours a week in front of a screen.
By 3, their screen time had shot up to 25 hours a week, going back down to 11 hours aged 5, when primary school typically begins.
In the study, a screen could mean anything from phones, TVs, computers, tablets, gaming devices, or a combo. It didn’t really specify the differences between each device, or look into the content being viewed.
And because the study used self-reported data, among other things, it can’t be taken as the absolute, 100%, gospel truth on the matter.
In reality, a lot more research would need to be done before anyone could reasonably claim that there’s a definitive developmental effect on toddlers, based on screen time alone.
What else do recent studies show?
Screen time is a scientific minefield – and health professionals will no doubt be doing plenty of research on the topic over the next few years.
A big study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US is going to be a long-term look into the effects of screen time on children.
Right now, they’ve only just finished recruiting the 11,000 kids who’ll be part of the study, but their current findings suggest that upwards of 2 hours of screen time a day can have a negative impact.
Specifically, these kids, aged 9 – 10 years, were getting lower test results on exams that required thinking or language skills.
This study will also involve researching how addictive screens are for kids, and will also use brain scans as part of its data – the first of these scans has shown that kids who spend more than 7 hours a day on their phones experience “premature thinning of the cortex,” according to study author Gaya Dowling, via Business Insider.
There’s a lot left to unpack there… but we’ll be curious to see what else this research shows once it’s properly kicked off, and fully completed.
Another study, this time an Oxford University one published in November 2018, looked at whether blue light from screens affects children’s sleep – and suggested it didn’t hugely impact the amount of sleep children and teenagers were getting.
The research – available on Journal of Pediatrics – concluded that every hour of screen time was linked to 3 to 8 fewer minutes of sleep per night.
Kids who had no screen time slept on average 8 hours 51 minutes, while children who spent 8 hours in front of screens during the day slept for 8 hours and 21 minutes.
Yeah, that’s not amazing. More sleep is always best, in our book ? But, in theory, it could be easily resolved:
“Focusing on bedtime routines and regular patterns of sleep, such as consistent wake-up times, are much more effective strategies for helping young people sleep than thinking screens themselves play a significant role,” study lead Prof Andrew Przbylski told the BBC.
He added: “Because the effects of screens are so modest, it is possible that many studies with smaller sample sizes could be false positives – results that support an effect that in reality does not exist.”
Again, it’s another study reliant on self-reported data, making it “imperfect” – something the Prof himself admits.
Though this one does use a sample-size of 50,000 participants from the US.
Finally, we’ve seen another study about screen time and sleep. This one’s from 2017, again using self-reported data, and focusing on the affects on touchscreen devices on children aged 6 months to 3 years.
The results showed that, combining day naps and nighttime sleep, kids who used a touchscreen device daily slept on average 15 minutes less in total per night.
What the experts are saying NOW
Despite all of this research, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) here in the UK, says – definitively:
“The evidence base for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated.
“The majority of the literature that does exist looks only at television screen time.
“Many of the apparent connections between screen time and adverse effects may be mediated by lost opportunities for positive activities (socialising, exercise, sleep) that are displaced by screen time.”
We would add to this that a lot of the studies we’ve seen rely on self-reported data from parents – so we’re curious to see the outcome of longer-term, non-self-reported studies, in particular.
If you’re worried about all the research, or your toddler/small child’s screen usage, the RCPCH says to ask yourself 4 key questions:
- Is screen time in your household controlled?
- Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
- Does screen use interfere with sleep?
- Are you able to control snacking during screen times?
We’d add another one to this list:
- What does your child do/watch during screen time? Is some of it beneficial or educational, as well as entertaining?
If you feel happy with your answers to these questions, then the RCPCH reckons you’re doing a good job with the issue ?
Dr Max Davie, an RCPCH health officer, also wants people to: “stop worrying… we want to cut through that and say ‘actually if you’re doing OK and you’ve answered these questions of yourselves and you’re happy, get on and live your life.'”
Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), has also added:
“Given our previous concerns we very much welcome this precautionary advice for parents, which, in the absence of more robust scientific evidence is much needed to better understand the impact of screen use on young people’s health and wellbeing.
“Barely a day passes without yet more concerning findings regarding the potential harms around screen use or social media.
“This advice is therefore a step in the right direction towards the establishment of much needed clearer guidance which parents are crying out for to protect their children and help them navigate the Wild West of the digital world.”
Is there a minimum age before kids should use screens?
As it happens, there are no UK guidelines on the appropriate age to introduce screens like tablets, smartphones and TVs to your baby or toddler.
It would appear, based on what the RCPCH have released as their guideline on screen time for children, that they do not feel this kind of recommendation is necessary.
In the United States and Canada, the American Academy of Pediatrics and their experts recommend children under 24 months (2 years) “avoid all digital media” – with the exception of video calls, like FaceTime or Skype (we’ve asked our mums what they think about this reccomendation – we’ll report back as soon as we’ve got some answers on what they think about that.)
Is there a suggested daily time limit on screen time for kids?
Right now, there is no NHS-recommend or legal screen time limit for toddlers or young children – as far as we are aware.
The RCPCH says it can’t reasonably give a guideline on how many minutes/hours a day are appropriate:
“[Scientific] evidence is weak for a threshold to guide children and parents to the appropriate level of screen time, and we are unable to recommend a cut-off for children’s screen time overall.”
That said, there’s no reason you can’t decide your own limit, if you want to. We’d say, for now: use your own judgement. Do what you’re comfortable with.
Will Gardner, CEO of charity Childnet, told MadeForMums: “We don’t have a time limit to share, but we do encourage parents and carers to set clear expectations early on.”
How can you limit screen time for your toddler?
There are ways you can minimise your use of screens with your toddler, if you want to keep tabs on things – though every approach has to be individual to you and your family’s needs.
The UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, suggests some simple – but hopefully effective – ways to cut back on screen time in your house.
These might apply more to older children, but you can think about these things for your younger kids, too:
- Think about sleep. Can you make sure there are no phones in the bedroom, or no phones for an hour before bedtime? Maybe the family leaves their phones downstairs at night?
- Encourage your kids to follow the school’s screen time policy. May be impossible, but find out what it is – and try to get them to stick to it.
- Go for screen-free walks. The CMO’s guidance suggests short breaks in-between screen binges.
- Try screen-free meal times. Speaks for itself, this one.
- Use the tech available to you to track your kids’ screen time, and what they’re viewing. iPhones and iPads now provide screen time reports which shows how many hours per day/week have been spent on the phone, and what they’ve been doing during that time.
- Monitor your child’s behaviour. Obviously, if they’re behaving weirdly about their phone, or spending all their time on screens, it may be time to act.
The RCPCH has a full screen time guide, too – which you can download here as a PDF.
Some of these tips might sound a bit idyllic – but what do MFMers do in their own lives? We asked them to tell us their tried-and-tested approaches over Instagram Story…
“If they eat, or make a good attempt at their tea, they are allowed an hour of [TV or tablet time] afterwards,” says Emma L, taking the CMO’s advice, and creating a compromise.
One mum suggests picking a DVD or choosing 2 – 3 episodes of a kids’ show, and after that, switching things off.
“Distract them with some playtime,” suggests Shannon M on Insta. “And join in with their game.”
Emma O on Instagram also uses regular old toys to keep screen time limited. “I rotate toy boxes to keep things fresh,” she shares.
Carla S likes a mix of activities for her little ones, “Set time boundaries, and have a mixture of activities to break things up.”
And MFMA19 judge Nigel aka Instadad @notsofunnydad reckons “adults should get off their phones. They learn from us!”
We like this: a screen limit for everyone in the house, not just the kids. @louie_mama_dada says her approach is to listen to the radio sometimes, not just watch TV, too.
Can screen time for toddlers or children ever be a positive thing?
Obviously, there are potential negatives to lots of screen time. However, here at MFM we think there are plenty of positives, too.
Especially since we have to accept that, in some form or another, technology is part of all of our daily lives… and often than involves looking at a screen.
One of our mums, S, reckons if your child is looking at the right stuff – it can help shape them as a person, and build their general knowledge.
YouTube videos can be educational – not just mindless. And phone/tablet access allows kids the opportunity to:
- read/listen to books
- listen to podcasts
- practice colouring-in/drawing skills
- learn languages
- develop technology skills
- read about history and science
- watch documentaries
- watch educational kids’ shows
- explore movies and cinema
- develop an understanding of world events through the news
– and so on, as well as game and be entertained.
S has seen her child use screens for good, to become an intelligent, well-rounded young adult.
Don’t forget that TV time can also be an opportunity for the family to get together, bond and have discussions over a film or a topic, not just sit and ignore each other.
@louie.mama.dad uses some of her family’s TV time to help her child connect with his auntie, who has a hearing impairment. “My 1-year-old copies Mr Tumble, which is great – his auntie is deaf, so we use the signing!”
And there’s no denying that – on a long train or plane journey – an hour watching cartoons on the iPad is much more preferable to a toddler’s screaming tantrum. Right?
“I owe my sanity to it,” says Sophie B on Instagram. And Kay A agrees: “Sometimes needed when there is washing up that needs to be done without a 3-year-old screaming.”
How do I stop feeling guilty about screen time?
“It’s okay. It’s not the end of civilisation as we know it, I promise,” Grey’s Anatomy actress Katherine Heigl, who has a 6 and 9 year old among her brood, once told People magazine.
And we were so, so glad she did. Because she’s right: none of the scientific evidence we’ve seen so far suggests the sky is going to fall down over a few cartoons or silly app games.
@ladyvonmummy told us she feels “anxious”, while Fiona H admits she feels “confused and guilty” about screen overload.
But as Katherine reminded herself during her own guilty phase: “And then I [think], ‘Oh, wait a minute — Naleigh and Madison are playing Words With Friends against each other, so essentially they’re playing Scrabble, just without the board on the table.
“Adalaide is colouring on her iPad, Josh is reading the news and I’m reading a book.
“We’re all doing things that we would be doing to entertain ourselves, we’re just doing them differently than we did them 20 years ago.”
Can screen time for toddlers be an online safety issue, too?
We’re all aware of the risks of catfishing and grooming for our older kids – but is there a safety risk from spending so much time on screens for our youngest, too?
Well, the easy answer to this is: just because they’re on a screen, doesn’t mean they’re on the internet. They might be on an app game, or watching a cartoon downloaded from Netflix…
But if 3 – 4 year olds have access to a tablet, they may be able to access the internet.
Honestly, this probably isn’t your biggest worry for a toddler, but it’s good to keep an eye on all little ones’ internet usage, and to sit with your young child and teach them how to use the internet responsibly.
Make sure you’ve got the relevant parental controls on, too. There’s a good guide here for keeping under 5s safe online from Childnet, which is well worth a read.
What about screen time for children with autism or ADHD?
All of the research, advice and guidance here isn’t based on children who have specific needs. So, you may need to make extra considerations if your child has ADHD or is on the spectrum.
For example, screen time may play a role in your child’s hyperactivity, or your child may not understand or accept if you decide to monitor or limit their screen time, and that kind of thing.
We’d suggest speaking to your GP or another medical professional who works with your child, and discussing any screen time issues you have with them.
In the meantime, the National Autistic Society has a comprehensive resource about technology for parents who have children with autism.
ADDISS, the National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service, may be a useful resource for parents of children with ADD or ADHD, too.
The bottom line…
With screen time: there’s bad and good to weigh up. There may long term effects of all these screens, and to find out, we’ll just have to wait and see.
In the meantime, it’s up to you to decide when your kids start using their screens, when and how your kids use their tech devices, and for how long each day.
Share your view
What’s your take on this? Are you anti-screens for your toddler? Maybe you don’t mind using the iPad, or letting them play the odd game – and are A-OK with relying on tech to get you through long journeys?
Perhaps you have a screen time or internet usage rule in your house that works wonders for allowing screen time, but keeping tech usage nice and balanced?
Images: Getty Images