Does Screen Time Affect Children’s Development?

Over the past century, the presence of screens in everyday life has rapidly increased. Only 9% of American households had televisions in 1950. By 1978, that jumped to 98%.

Later, computer ownership followed a similar upward trajectory. In 1984, only about 8% of American homes contained a computer. By 2016, that number was over 89%.

The smartphone is the latest screen with skyrocketing ownership. In 2011, 35% of Americans owned a smartphone. In 2019, 81% owned a smartphone, and 96% owned some type of cell phone.

Of course, adults aren’t the only ones using these devices. Children watch TV, use computers, and play on smartphones. On average, children 8 and under spend 48 minutes per day looking at a mobile device. Many people are beginning to wonder what effect this screen time has on kids.

How Do Screens Affect Children?

Most experts agree that too much screen time harms children’s development. Researchers found that increased screen time (of any type) led to lower scores on developmental tests given to children ages 2, 3, and 5. They speculate that screen time could be causing developmental and academic delays.

This study wasn’t the only to find an association between screen time and child development. Another study found that time spent watching TV predicted lower school achievement. Another found that watching entertaining (but not educational) TV before age 3 was associated with attention problems five years later.

Excessive screen time appears to affect more than children’s test results. Brain imaging of preschool children revealed differences in the white matter of kids who looked at screens more. Looking at screens too much might affect the physical structure of children’s brains, particularly in areas known for supporting language and literacy.

How Much Screen Time Is Okay for Kids?

The World Health Organization provides screen time guidelines for children under 5 years old:
• Less than 2 years old: No screen time at all
• Age 2 to 5: Less than one hour of screen time per day

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry is a bit more lenient in their screen time guidelines:
• Less than 18 months old: Limit screen time to video chats with an adult.
• Between 18 and 24 months old: Limit screen time to educational content with a caregiver.
• Ages 2 to 5: Limit non-educational screen time to one hour on weekdays and three hours on weekends.
• Ages 6 and up: Encourage healthy habits and limit screen time.

Although screens can provide children with educational benefits, most American kids look at screens too much. We aren’t completely sure how this will affect them yet. Initial research shows that excessive screen time can harm kids, especially those under 2 years old.

As guidelines continue to evolve, parents should focus on teaching their kids how to have a healthy relationship with screens. For example, kids should eat meals without looking at screens, enjoy screen-free time with friends and family, and avoid screens before bedtime.

Written by: Jay Summer

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