Danger: Cumulative Screen Time for Little Ones

I tried to avoid it; I really did.  I didn’t like it and I didn’t want to deal with it.  Yet, I knew that if I didn’t deal with it now I’d regret it for years to come. So I faced it. I engaged. I chose to enter into conflict….with my preschooler.

I remember the years in which trying to set rules and boundaries with my little ones was more challenging than any other challenge I ever tackled.  I really didn’t look forward to saying things like, “Bedtime is in 5 minutes”, or “No, you may not eat that bag of cookies”, let alone – “Stop painting the dog white with the house paint!” and my favorite, “You will not spoon feed your little brother a bag of powdered sugar and spill it all over the carpet!

While I was wrestling over house paint and powdered sugar (which, by the way, is impossible to get out of carpet after children and a 100-pound Golden Retriever walked all over it), today’s parent wrangles over a less-messy yet more potent problem. Cumulative screen time for children in early childhood (children under the age of 5) has potential harmful effects which negatively affect a child’s development.

In a recent study of 2,441 children*, too much screen time before the age of 2 affects the results of developmental testing in these same children when they are 3-years-old. Consistent with these findings, 3-year-olds who have experienced excessive screen time show decreased developmental outcomes at the age of 5.  Bottom line, research shows that young children should not engage in more than 1 hour of cumulative screen time in a day. So practically, the cartoon before the play date, the iPad in the grocery store, and the computer game after dinner all add up to cumulative screen time. When you add all the screen time together, you don’t want to exceed 60 minutes (1 hour) a day.

How difficult is it for parents to abide by these wise guidelines?  Extremely. Often when children are engaging with a device it provides them an instant gratification, and as such they are likely to have a strong pull toward playing or watching it again and again. Like us, children can easily get hooked on screen time.

How do parents deal with the inevitable conflict that will result if they set and enforce limits on their child’s screen time?

  • Conflict should not be avoided and should be handled with gentleness and patience.  Limiting screen time will be disappointing for the child and may result in conflict, but it is also an opportunity to engage in discussion, spend time together, and teach the qualities of patience and delayed gratification. Help the child identify their disappointment and give them the emotional and verbal skills needed to express their feelings constructively to find alternative activities.
  • Children learn best through movement; they are kinesthetic learners as much as visual ones. Playing with hands-on games, puzzles, and blocks engages their brain in ways a screen never could.  Parents and caregivers alike can work toward understanding the stages of cognitive development of a child and what it takes to maximize a child’s potential for cognitive functions (critical thinking, decision making, creative solutions, etc.) by playing with their children and providing toys that require small and large motor movement.
  • Effective social learning, which takes place when eye contact is made in person, cannot be replaced with screen time.  Parents are encouraged not to “underestimate the value of face-to-face time” in which children learn how to empathize, express emotion, read facial and other nonverbal clues, and learn vocal as well as verbal communication.  Quality time is any time that parents and children are paying attention, listening, talking, and engaging with one another. Every day moments matter!
  • Setting boundaries on screen time is best done early in the child’s development.  A habit of non-screen time is a habit best started when the child is young and kept consistently as they grow.  Not only will the child’s potential for development be maximized, a child is never too young to start a life-long pattern of self-discipline in regard to technology use.
  • Encourage children to explore and be curious. Screen time often makes problem-solving and entertainment too easily accessible. Challenging children to work to overcome boredom or solve their problems engages the child in critical thinking, delayed gratification, and innovative creativity.

Dear Reader, I have a hunch that research will continue to show us the dangers of cumulative screen time. How can we help parents realize the dangers of setting their child in front of the screen too often? Consider passing on this blog post to the parents of preschoolers you know; join them in thinking through what and when screen time could be used in their home. At the same time, this is a great opportunity for each of us to take a serious look at how much time we spend in front of a screen. We can’t influence the Next Generation if we are not self-aware of how we ourselves are using screens. We can also thoughtfully consider how much face-to-face time we may be inadvertently giving up by picking up our screens without thinking through what we are giving up by picking them up. How precious is the time we get to spend in each other’s company without the distraction of a screen!

Many blessings as you seek to uses screen time wisely for you and your children.  

Fondly yours, Elizabeth

**The research study referred to in this article is taken from Madigan, Sheri, et. al. “Associates between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test.” JAMA Pediatrics. Published online 28 Jan 19. JAMA Network, URL: jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2722666 **

 

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