Balancing the benefits and consequences of screen time

We’ve all seen it before. Toddlers unlocking smart phones, and kids expertly navigating their way to cartoons on a tablet. Technology has become a central component in our children’s daily lives, no matter what stage they are at. Constantly having phones, tablets, and other devices literally at our fingertips has impacted the way our children are growing up, and as technology continues to change, so too does the way they interact with it.

Impacts of screen time on young children

Dr. Sheri Madigan is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary, a clinical psychologist, and an expert in early childhood development. Focusing primarily on children ages 0-5 years old, much of her research addresses how we can best set children up for success in school, ensuring they are meeting appropriate developmental milestones before they begin kindergarten.

With screen time becoming a big part of children’s lives, many parents are asking how technology can be used in a healthy way. Dr. Madigan’s research has shown that too much screen time can negatively impact a child’s development. “Children receiving too much screen time each day are showing delays in meeting their developmental milestones, which are essential ingredients for setting them up for success in school,” she explains. “Language skills may be affected, and their gross motor skills—throwing a ball, walking, and running—are delayed. As the daily duration of screen time in a child’s life increases, children are less likely to meet these important developmental milestones.”

Average screen time exceeds recommendations

The Canadian Sedentary Behavior Guidelines state that screen time is not recommended for children under the age of two. For those ages 2-5 years old, a maximum of one hour per day of high-quality programming geared towards learning and development is the suggested limit. Dr. Madigan’s research found, however, that the average screen time children currently get greatly exceeds these recommendations, with two-year-olds spending about 2.5 hours in front of a screen per day, and 3.5 hours for three-year-olds.

As technology continues to change rapidly, so has the nature of how we interact with screens. Watching TV used to be more of a communal family event. But with the rise of the tablet, and more children having their own devices, our interactions with technology have become a lot more solitary.

While Dr. Madigan recognizes there can be positives to screen time, she cautions parents against relying too heavily on technology to stimulate their children: “There can be some very targeted benefits of screen time, for instance, children who watch small daily doses of high-quality programs, such as Sesame Street, may show some language benefits. But if children are having positive interactions with caregivers instead, that can supersede any of the benefits that they would get from screen time.”

“When children watch screens for too long they are missing out on interactions with their caregivers. Screen time ends up displacing quality interactions children could otherwise have with their parents or caregivers, and we know that when those interactions are strong, that’s what truly sets children up for success.” –Dr. Sheri Madigan, clinical psychologist


Balance is key

Dr. Madigan’s suggestions for parents concerned about the impact technology is having on their family? Thoughtful consideration. “Intentionality is key—it’s important for parents to start thinking about what role they want screen time to have in their home. As media mentors, parents and caregivers have the opportunity to mentor children on how technology operates in the home.” She also suggests designating device-free time/space in your home to make room for family connection, “We really need to disconnect from our devices in order to connect with one another.”

As Dr. Madigan explains, technology should not replace important interactions with family and friends, which children can miss out on if they are watching cartoons while eating, or playing games on a tablet while in the car.

Some argue that we need to raise children in a digital world because that is their reality, and there is some truth to that. Used appropriately at the right time in their lives, technology can offer great opportunities to empower children. For example, goIT, a free program offered in partnership with United Way and Tata Consultancy Services, helps children ages 8-18 gain the skills and confidence they need to pursue degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

The Canadian Paediatric Society offers some great resources to begin thoughtful conversations around the role technology can play in your home and with your family. Here’s some questions you may want to consider as you decide what the right balance of screen time is in your home:

  1. What kind of screens are in your home (e.g., TV, tablet, computer, smartphone)? Which does your child use?
  2. Is watching TV or programs/movies on other devices a shared family activity and a common way to relax? How often is a screen on in the background although no one is really watching?
  3. Does anyone in the family use screens during mealtimes?
  4. What do you watch with your child? What does your child watch alone?
  5. Do you encourage or discourage conversation with your child while you are using screens?
  6. Do you ever watch adult/commercial programming with your child?
  7. Does your child use screens while you do chores around the home? Often? Sometimes?
  8. Are there any screen-based activities in your child’s day care program? Do you know how much these are used?
  9. Does your child use any kind of screen before bedtime? How long before bedtime? Is there a TV or computer in your child’s bedroom? Does your child take mobile devices into the bedroom?
  10. Does your family have rules or guidelines for screen use that everyone understands and shares?

For more information on this issue, and Dr. Madigan’s research, visit: Excessive screen time linked to preschool learning delays.


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