Too Much ‘Screen Time’ Has Negative Effect

When Linda’s children were young (they are in their 20s now), they did not watch much television. Occasionally, they danced along with Barney or watched “Sesame Street,” but their days were filled with dolls, board games and dress up.

In the decades since, things have changed. With the proliferation of televisions and personal computers, and now smart phones and tablets, parents are warned by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children should not watch television at all until they are 2 years old. This message may seem confusing to young parents since their generation were the children who first grew up on “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” – not to mention the fact that as young mothers we all received an abundance of Baby Einstein videos at any baby shower.

Screen time, as it is commonly referred to, is on the rise and our youngest children are getting way too much of it. Science Daily reports that on average, preschool-aged children are exposed to four hours of screen time each weekday, with 3.6 hours of that exposure coming from home. The AAP encourages parents, teachers and caregivers to restrict total screen time for children over 2 years old to less than two hours each day.

Two hours adds up very quickly when you realize that screen time includes television shows, computer work, video games, apps played on a smart phone, etc. Certainly some “screen time” is educational, but we seem to be going overboard.

How is this screen time affecting preschool children? As early as 1979, researchers knew that the more TV preschoolers watched, the poorer they did academically and socially in the first grade. Today we believe it contributes to childhood obesity, children’s poor sleep patterns and their inability to attend to a task for long periods of time. (Children who exceed the two hours per day of screen time are one and one-half to two times more likely to encounter attention problems in school.)

Even background television has an effect. If your young child is in the room and the adults are watching television, he or she will not attend to a toy or an activity for very long. Babies and very young children need to have experiences with real materials and people in order to learn about the world around them. They also need to hear lots of language spoken to them, not at them.

Some argue that being in front of a screen for too long limits the time for a child to be active. However, Annie Page at the University of Bristol found that even if children did an hour or more of vigorous exercise a day, those who also watched TV or played on their computers for at least two hours each day were still likely to suffer the side effects. The child who played a total of two hours of video games was affected whether or not they also played soccer for the rest of the day.

What advice would we give parents since completely turning off the screen might be too difficult? It is the age-old advice – everything in moderation. To reduce screen time it is best to keep TVs and computers out of a child’s bedroom, eliminate background TV altogether and resist eating in front of the television. Simply being aware of this research will encourage you as an adult to limit a young child’s screen time. And the next time you buy a child a present (or a baby shower gift for that matter), find something that doesn’t require a screen – the less the toy does, the more the baby or child does, and the more the young child learns.

If you are looking for more suggestions, the National Research Center for Women & Families suggests the following:

  • Get your toddlers and preschool-age children involved in household chores and let it be a learning opportunity. You can get them small brooms so they can sweep one part of the room while you sweep another, and you can teach them the names and colors of vegetables while you are cooking.
  • Make it a point to eat dinner together and ask your child about his or her day. If it is a very young child, you can remind him of all the things he did that day, asking a few simple questions, such as what he liked best about the day.
  • If you really need your child to be occupied during an important call or while you complete a task and you don’t think that she will be able to play long enough by herself, let her listen to pre-recorded stories on a tape or CD. You can buy these but better yet, record yourself telling or reading your child’s favorite stories. This way your child will have you, even when you are not available or are away on a trip. Listening to stories, as opposed to watching them on TV or on a computer, helps children develop listening skills.
  • When you want to watch an adult show, record it and watch it after your child goes to sleep.
  • If your child is going to watch something, watch with her and comment or ask questions about what you are watching. You can make passive TV viewing active this way.
  • Provide your young child with simple toys and household objects that aren’t automated (if the toy needs batteries, save it for when the child is older). The more the toy does, the less your child will do.

Linda Krulock graduated from West Liberty State College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education and early childhood. She teaches senior kindergarten at Wheeling Country Day School. Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education.