How Much Screen Time Should a Child Have?

This has been an exciting week or two in the evolving journey of screen time for children. The world has necessarily been cautious to support screen time for children in any form whilst the research of usage beyond TV was limited. However, with the view of American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) changing and the publication here in the UK of the Technology and Play report (relating to under 5s) I’m delighted to see increasing weight behind arguments I’ve been making for some time – providing clear useful guidelines to parents.The basic principles in a nut shell are:

  • Unmonitored, unrestricted, excessive usage of screens by children is definitely a bad idea!
  • Limited usage of the right sort of content on screens can be positively beneficial – the key is managing it carefully as part of a balanced play diet and choosing the content wisely

Photo credit: Kids on the iPad by Thijs Knaap licensed under CC BY 2.0

The research I’ve seen so far indicates that regular usage of 3 hours or more per day counts as excessive, after all if this is all in after school hours during the week this would mean school age children do little else. However, it’s not so much the total time that seems most significant as balancing this with what else they do and also how that screen time is spent.

The AAP – a new perspective

One piece of advice that always gets chucked into any debate on screen time is the AAP’s guideline that children under 2 should have no screen time whatsoever. However, the AAP has recently announced new guidelines for parents which are far more useful in the modern world. As they put it themselves:

“In a world where “screen time” is becoming simply “time,” our policies must evolve or become obsolete.”

There is no need to worry that this change simply comes from popular demand. The fact is the advice for ‘no screen time for under 2s’ was based more on lack of evidence that screen time could be beneficial at this age, rather than evidence that is was harmful. After all it pre-dates the launch of iPads and tablets. Conversely, there is now mounting evidence that usage, even in under 2s, of the right content in the right way can be positively beneficial.

Don’t forget that whilst TV has been around for a long time, the first iPad only launched in 2010 – this means the research community has had only 5 years to understand the implications of tablet based games on children. However, in that time the number of children who have access to an iPad or tablet has grown faster than anyone could have imagined – Ofcom reported that at the end of 2014 71% of 5-15 year olds in the UK had access to a tablet at home.

New research on the under 5s use of screen time
New research in this area includes the recent Technology and Play study looking at apps use by preschoolers. The report published last week showing that apps can benefit under 5s if parents choose wisely. They found particular benefits to creativity at this young age from the right choice of apps, used in the right way – such as with support from parents.

What should we worry about?
I don’t want this post to imply that parents shouldn’t worry about screen time. To the contrary, I think excessive screen time is one of the biggest new risks facing children today. The evidence is very clear, children who spend excessive time glued to screens and don’t as a result have sufficient time to spend in active or social play in the real world tend to suffer. Issues include:

  • Inactivity leading to obesity, back issues, lack of physical fitness etc.
  • Lack of time spent outdoors leading to nature deficit disorder
  • Lack of social play leading to insular children with poor social skills

Not to mention the problems caused by children having too much access to screens that goes unmonitored (such as use in bedrooms) which has been linked to children getting insufficient sleep, poor performance in exams and e-safety related issues (such as grooming, cyberbullying, inappropriate social media activity).

The problems are very real but this does not mean that as parents we should stick our heads in the sand and ban screens outright – instead we should take time to understand the issues and work out how to steer our children around them.

Aiming for a balanced play diet
Play is absolutely vital to a child’s development. Just as it is important to have a balanced food diet, it is important that a child has a balanced play diet. Children’s play should be varied with active, imaginative and social play being like your fruit, veg and carbohydrates (it’s important to get plenty of these) and passive ‘staring at the TV’ time being like your fatty foods, salt and sugar (best to be kept to a minimum).
Of course, screen time can be social, it can even be active (at the Good App Guide we’ve seen some fabulous apps that get children moving) so modern screen time doesn’t have to sit in one ‘box’ but the important thing is balance.

Choosing the right sort of screen time

What worried me in the Technology and Play study particularly was the number of apps in the ‘top ten’ list that are not aimed at under 5s. The top ten favourites reported for under 5s were:

  1. YouTube
  2. CBeebies (Playtime and Storytime)
  3. Angry Birds
  4. Talking Tom (and similar)
  5. Peppa’s Paintbox
  6. Temple Run
  7. Minecraft
  8. Disney (general)
  9. Candy Crush Saga
  10. Toca Boca

Some of these apps are ideal for this age range whilst others are simply not designed for preschoolers – hopefully you can guess which ones?
Where I’ve seen the most exciting developments personally in under 5s through screentime have been in areas like shape / colour recognition, basic numeracy and literacy, creativity and imaginative play. If you are a parent of an under 5, please do your research and choose apps that help them learn. Also, be ready to sit beside them at least some of the time to ensure they get the most out of the content you do choose.

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