Screen savvy parents: How much screen time is best for kids?

Have you ever been shocked and perhaps a little bit proud when your five-year-old uploaded his first video to the internet? Or texted grandma all on his own?

How about when your two-year-old figured out how to swipe through the photo gallery on your phone or launch her favourite app?

Children seem to have a knack for technology and watching them use it can be entertaining and even awe-inspiring. Maybe that five-year-old will be the founder of the next big tech company or that two-year-old, a famous photographer!

It’s important to remember that while technology is an important part of the 21st century, children’s brains are programmed to learn best in the real world. In fact, kids have trouble applying what they see on a screen to real world situations.

For babies up to 18 months

It turns out babies’ brains grow so fast that punctuating learning time with screen time (which includes TV, video games, smartphone/tablet or computer use) before about 18 months actually interrupts learning. Yes, even having screen time in the background can impact learning!

But what about educational apps and programs that are aimed at babies?

Companies who claim that their apps or digital products are “educational” for babies are simply trying to sell their product. Don’t fall prey to the hype—there’s no research to back it up. For example, reading traditional books is always the way to go instead of interactive e-books.

For toddlers and preschoolers up to age 6

Toddlers and preschoolers, on the other hand, can understand more of what’s going on on-screen, as evidenced by singing and dancing along to videos, taking selfies and manipulating apps. At this age, high-quality programming you view with and talk about with your child may have some educational benefit. But it’s dependent on your helping them interpret and apply what they see. At the end of the day, kids learn best from interacting directly with their parents and other caregivers.

But what’s the harm?

So direct interaction with children is the best way for them to learn but is there harm associated with screen time? Research tells us that too much screen time for children can:

  • Have lasting effects on language development and reading skills
  • Affect social and emotional development
  • Affect short-term memory
  • Interfere with sleep

With screens everywhere, screen time is everywhere. It really adds up! You may be thinking “Hey, I watched TV when I was a kid and I turned out okay”. Even if you grew up watching a lot of TV yourself, chances are you didn’t watch it while in a car, getting your groceries, eating at restaurants or waiting at the doctor’s office.

We need to think carefully about our children’s use of screens. Canada’s screen time guidelines can be a great place to start.

Screen time guidelines: 

  • Children under the age of 2 should have ZERO screen time. Yes, you read that correctly. Even if baby loves to stare at the colours and shapes. Even if they enjoy it.  
  • Children ages 2-4 should have LESS THAN 1 HOUR of screen time per day. 
  • Children and youth ages 5-17 should have NO MORE THAN 2 HOURS of recreational screen time per day; that is any screen time outside of school. 

Oh boy.

So how does a busy parent or caregiver get anything done around the house? Relax in the evening without answering “Why?” repeatedly until bedtime? Or even survive a plane ride with a preschooler? 

We hear you! It can be hard. We hope you’ll try some of our favourite tips for slowly stepping away from the screens as a family; unplugging and reconnecting with the three-dimensional space:

  • Talk to your kids about screen time and involve kids in setting daily screen time limits.
  • Create and follow household media limits. Then set a good example for your kids. For example, if they aren’t allowed to use their tablet at the dinner table, you should avoid checking your smartphone.
  • Make activity part of your after-dinner routine. Play music, make a craft or take a family walk together instead of defaulting to screen time.
  • Enjoy a quiet activity before bedtime such as reading a book together. Avoid using screens for at least 1 hour before bedtime and keep all screens out of your child's bedroom. This will help improve your child’s sleep.
  • Provide 5-minute warnings when transitioning to a non-screen time activity. You will be more successful when you give kids a heads-up and tell them what activity is next.
  • Have non-screen time activities on hand to occupy your kids when on the go. Make up a few special kits when on the road or even try some verbal games like “I Spy”. Kids may enjoy the following in a grab-and-go kit:
    • Colouring books with crayons
    • Reading books
    • Stickers
    • Finger puppets
    • Cheerios and string
    • Card games

Remember kids need active playtime!

  • Infants under a year should be active on the floor several times a day.
  • Toddlers and preschoolers ages 1-4 should be active at least 180 minutes—that’s 3 hours or more a day! It doesn’t have to be all at once and it can be at any intensity (e.g., mixture of free play, sports activities).
  • By the time your child turns 5, they should be spending an hour or more playing energetically per day.

We’ve provided a lot of information about screen time for your little ones. In summary, remember these three tips:

  1. Meet the screen time guidelines
  2. Put away screens during mealtimes and at least one hour before bed
  3. Enjoy other activities!

Learn more about screen time

Your Child's Developmental Milestones

Want more age-specific information? Visit our website to read about your child’s development and get more activities and healthy living tips.

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