Screen time and young children: Latest guidelines

Screen time and young children: Latest guidelines

Bindy Cummings and Jane Andrew

Screen time is here to stay and for children under the age of five years is rising at an alarming rate.  Screens, in their multitude of forms, will be a part of your children’s lives at some point. What parents really need to be on top of is; the latest research findings, what experts are recommending and alternative ways to engage babies and children without screens.

The latest research

Researchers are finding that screens are not always a bad thing and there are some benefits to letting little ones use technology. Some educational apps and TV shows can promote brain development however, there’s a line, and cross it and parents may actually, unintentionally be doing significantly more harm than good. Most of the essential stimuli needed for child development in the early years is not found on today’s screens. When a young child spends too much time in front of a screen and not enough getting required stimuli from the real world, development can become stunted.1 

A number of troubling studies have connected delayed cognitive development in children with extended exposure to electronic media.  Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, says getting hooked on tablets and smartphones can cause permanent damage to the still-developing brains of very small children. Too much screen time too soon, he says, “is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed.”The long-term development and health implications are real.

Caution: Children not at play when on a screen

Between birth and age three is a critical period for learning. Paediatric associations in the US, UK, Canada and Australia  and GymbaROO’s own research, reminds parents that children experience unparalleled physical, mental and emotional growth in the earliest years of life and it is during this time that the foundations for all later learning and ability are laid.

Throughout childhood, the active child is building essential motor-sensory pathways in the brain through physical movement and sense experiences. Movement, repetition and rhythmical activities stimulate growth along nerve pathways that will later be used for academics, coordination, transporting perceptions, memories, feelings and thoughts.

Passive activities experienced through TVs, videos, computers, tablets, game-stations and hand-held devices, slow down physical and neurological development and limit sensory integration. Time spent watching digital media is time taken away from activities that nurture growth and healthy development.

Children exposed to high levels of daily screen-time are likely to have; shorter attention spans, an inability to concentrate, a sensory system that may become hypo or hypersensitive, underdeveloped fine and gross motor skills and poor social skills/emotional regulation. Research is showing that ‘screen-dominated’ children disconnect from society. These children risk developing their identity from games played and shows watched on the screen rather than from everyday interactions with children their own age and their families.

Liraz Margalit 1  PhD in her article:  What Screen Time Can Really Do to Kids’ Brains explains that on a screen the stimuli requiring multiple actions is not what a young brain needs. When a story is read to a child there is room for imagination and visualisation as they complete the story. On the screen, the images and sounds are spoon-fed.

Trouble making friends

Margalit 1 also notes that screens take away authentic human interactions and the ability to understand relationships. This social and emotional development is crucial in early childhood, the expression on a face, tone of voice and body language give information to a child. Screens take that away the ability to develop empathy.

Life has no on/off switch

Have you ever seen a mother chuckle as her baby tries to “swipe” a real photograph, or punch their fingers onto a poster or book as if it were a touchscreen? It may seem cute, but it points to something much deeper in the child’s brain—an internalisation that all actions have an immediate effect, and all stimuli elicit a quick response. This is true on a screen, but not in other areas of life. The quick reward brings pleasure to the child through the neurotransmitter dopamine. Children become ‘addicted’ to the immediate response and learn to prefer interactions with screens rather than the real world.1

Nicholas Kardaras, addictions expert and author of Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids 2 warns: “We’re now getting brain imaging research that shows that screen time affects the frontal cortex the exact same way as cocaine addiction. There are over two hundred studies that correlate excessive screen usage to everything from ADHS effects, obesity, anxiety, depression and even psychotic like symptoms.”

What the experts are recommending: Screen time guidelines

The Australian Governments national guidelines for screen time for babies and children are:

  • No screen time for children younger than two years
  • No more than one hour per day for children aged 2–5 years
  • No more than two hours of sedentary recreational screen time per day for children and young people aged 5–17 years (not including schoolwork)

Other experts 3

  • The Canadian Pediatric Society discourages screen-based activities for children under two
  • Addictions expert Nicholas Kardaras said parents should wait until kids are at least ten years old to expose them to portable screen time
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest that:
  • Children under 18 months should avoid screen time, other than video-chatting
  • Children aged 18 months to 2 years can watch or use high-quality programs or apps if adults watch or play with them to help them understand what they’re seeing
  • Children aged 2-5 years should have no more than one hour a day of screen time with adults watching or playing with them

What’s the Alternative? Ways to create PLAY

Screen should be used in moderation and never stand in for human interaction. If screen-time has taken over your child’s play, act now to find a balance and promote self-initiated play and real-life activities for a healthy brain and body. Working towards balancing screen-time with play activities that engage the whole body, will help balance their development and improve their capacity for learning and living. ‘Power off’ regularly and help your child establish clear boundaries between the real world and a virtual one. Children between the ages of two and five years should have at least three to four hours of active play every day.

Sensory Play—awakens and integrates the sensory system which leads to greater physical awareness and capacity. Play-dough, buckets and hoses for water play and sand pits are some good examples.

Exploratory Play— this gives children valuable information about the world around them and helps them learn to coordinate their body movements. Children can use anything with which they can interact – it does not have to be expensive or fancy! Open a cupboard and let them play with the pots and pans, wooden spoons and cooking trays. What can they do with it all? Build a tower? Start a band? Make an obstacle course to drive little cars over, around, under? The ideas are only limited by their imagination… but you may need to be on hand to get the ideas flowing.

Role Play—when children imitate the world around them, playing out real-life activities. Places like cubby houses and providing smaller versions of household tools help create opportunities for this.

Social Play—when children reach out to connect with others they rehearse turn-taking, negotiation and getting along. Setting up play dates at home or going out to a playground is a great start.

Rough and Tumble Play — in addition to building strength and coordination, this type of play guides aspects of character development like trust, risk-taking and discovering personal boundaries. Use old mattresses for gentle wrestling matches or obsta­cle courses, encourage tree climbing and games/activities that invite lifting, pulling and pushing.

Bindy Cummings is a teacher, GymbaROO early childhood neurodevelopmental consultant and early childhood development lecturer. She was the Editor of GymbaROO’s ‘First Steps’ magazine.

Jane Andrew is a Teacher and Extra Lesson Practitioner. She is passionate about helping parents understand the impact excessive digital media exposure can have on the developing child.

GymbaROO Images by Studio Z Photography

 Resources: 1. Liraz Margalit Ph.D. 4.