Part 2: How does screen time really affect child development?

screen time child on ipad

Children’s screen time, whether that’s on iPads, smartphones, TV, games consoles, computers or other tablets, can feel like a permanent battleground in many households. Yet, other than aiming for less many families lack detailed knowledge of why and in what ways screen time is a concern. Some also struggle to see how it can be valuable.

Part 1 of this series shares a number of research articles that describe both the issues and some potential benefits of screen time for children. This article aims to provide a quick reference, summarising key risks and providing tips for dealing with these.

At a glance, there are far more ‘bad news’ articles referenced in Part 1 than ‘good news’ which seem on the surface to confirm our worst fears that screen time really is harming our children. However, whilst there is no question that too much screen time is bad (for all of us), particularly bad for younger children and potentially habit (maybe even addiction) forming there is also clear evidence to show that moderate use of the right sort of screen time can be genuinely positive.

To really get the right balance it is important to understand the risks and what you can do about them:

  • Sleep: blue light can have an impact on circadian rhythms and hence sleep patterns. Furthermore, the content we engage with on screens distract us and engages our brains, often making it harder to mentally switch off and go to sleep.

Tips: turn on blue light filters, keep screens out of bedroom (adults too) and minimise use near bedtime, particularly if someone is having trouble sleeping. 

  • Health and fitness: just as with adults, being sedentary with poor posture and looking at a fixed short distance causes issues for backs, necks and eyes. In addition, spending too much time on screens means too little time is often left to be active. For children this means insufficient real-world play time developing physical (and other) skills but it’s bad whatever your age and can contribute to obesity and wider poor health.

Tips: teach children good posture when using screens, avoid letting them stay in one position for long periods, make sure you and your children have active lifestyles, particularly ensure children have plenty of physical play time. 

  • Behaviour: after screen time many parents report behavioural issues. At a minimum, this may simply be fighting to have more time (a long-running battle in many households) but more broadly evidence shows that some screen-based content encourages ‘hyper-focus’, messes with vestibular processing (see this article) and leads to a state of hyperactivity post-screen time. This can be very dependent on the particular child.

Tips: be clear and consistent in your screen time rules and explain why balance is so important, avoid fast-paced games particularly if your child displays bad behaviour after use (consider calm, educational alternatives). If they are struggling with hyperactivity try activities like jumping, swinging and trampolining after play to help calm them (and balance the screen time with physical activity). 

  • Social and emotional development: as the brain is plastic it learns from what it experiences (and, of course, doesn’t learn from what it doesn’t experience). Too much time on screen can simply leave too little time being social and learning emotional and social skills from understanding body language and learning empathy to taking time to develop relationships. In addition, the fast-paced, easy answer approach of many apps/games/programmes on screen are thought to train the brain to be impatient, they also overstimulate children visually and create dopamine surges – a natural drug linked to addiction.

Tips: Focus more on what else a child is doing rather than solely on the amount of screen time. Ensure they have plenty of social, face-to-face time with peers and adults (including plenty of time reading together), as well as imaginative and creative play time and time spent being active. 

  • Creativity and imagination: boredom is often the source of great imagination, and a need to improvise the source of great creativity (as explained in this TED talk). However, the popular approach of handing over a tablet or mobile phone to fill every bored moment means some children have very little experience of boredom. Not only does this mean they take little ‘time-out’ in life to sit back and reflect, but it can lead to children being less creative and imaginative.

Tips: let children be bored occasionally – don’t immediately hand over that iPad when you get on a long car journey, are at a restaurant or waiting at the doctor’s, for example. Beyond this, encourage creative activities your child enjoys whether that’s art, junk modelling, making up stories or building dens. Also, consider choosing screen time that encourages creativity and imagination – there are many options out there. 

Key take-aways:

  • Decide what screen time is healthy for your children and help them manage it as part of a balanced lifestyle alongside plenty of social, creative, and active time – also let them be bored occasionally!
  • Keep screens off around bedtime (whatever your age) or at least use blue light filters.
  • Not all screen time is equal: mindless, fast-paced stuff is common but not beneficial, slower, truly-educational, inspiring, thought-provoking content can add real value (in moderation as part of a balanced lifestyle).

This article does not discuss issues with screens related to social media, content choices, communication with games, commercial or privacy issues – subjects for a part 3 perhaps. Nor does it adequately communicate the vast, positive opportunites that digital affords children (part 4?) but hopefully provides useful tips.

We can’t turn the clock back and remove screens entirely from children’s lives, and wouldn’t want to, but ensuring they are used responsibly, in moderation and focusing on the right content is definitely important. The more we can train our children to be responsible when they are young, the better placed they will be to handle their technology as they grow older.

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