If you’ve noticed that your child is having more meltdowns, acting impulsively, and making poor decisions and/or having issues getting enough sleep, it may be helpful to reassess how much time they spend on screens each day. Whilst handing our toddler or preschooler our phone or tablet while we do the grocery shopping, workout or prepare dinner, is a sure-fire way to complete these tasks in peace, studies show that the tantrums, whining and general bad attitudes many children exhibit is directly related to their time on screens.
What Happens in Your Child’s Brain When They Use Screens?
It is helpful to understand that your child isn’t behaving badly on purpose. When they use a screen, their brain may be undergoing physiological changes out of their control. Dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter can be triggered and released into the brain of your child whilst using a screen, which teaches them to associate screen-time with pleasure. However, as Tom Warshawski a Kelowna-based paediatrician explains, "when the screen stops so does the dopamine release, and for some individuals this can result in-irritability.” This is especially true for children who, developmentally speaking, are still learning to self-regulate.
But this isn’t the only chemical imbalance that too much screen use can have on the brain. Not only can content designed to capture your child’s attention overstimulate them before bedtime, the blue light from televisions, mobile phones, tablets, and computer screens may suppress production of melatonin – the hormone responsible for sleep. As any parent can contest to, a tired child, is invariably not a happy child!
How Much Screen Time is Enough for Your Child?
Before we delve a little deeper into some of the effects of too much screen time on our little ones, it may be helpful to establish how much time experts deem is suitable depending on age.
Currently, the national guidelines for screen time in Australia can be found here, and were developed from systematic reviews of the evidence about the effects of physical activity, sleep and sedentary time on children’s development, health and wellbeing.
The guidelines recommend:
· No screen time for children younger than 2 years (except FaceTime calls with family)
· No more than one hour per day for children aged 2-5 years.
· No more than 2 hours of sedentary recreational screen-time per day for children and young people aged 5-17 yrs) not including school work).
What Researchers Have Discovered Regarding the Use of Screens by Babies, Toddlers and Preschoolers
· Studies have shown that children under the age of 2 years old learn less from a video than when learning from another person. And whilst babies of 6 months old may be captivated by what is going on in front of them on the screen, it appears that understanding what they are viewing doesn’t occur until after the age of 2.
· Studies have shown that children learn language best when engaged and interacting with parents and caregivers who talk to and play with them. Between the age of 18 months and 3 years, language development expands rapidly. Children who watch a lot of television during the early school years perform less well on reading tests and may also display deficits inattention.
· One Finnish study warns parents that allowing preschoolers to spend a lot of time watching movies, TV shows and other screens can make them more likely to develop emotional and behavioural problems by the age of 5. Senior researcher,Dr Juuli Paavonen, deputy chief physician for child psychiatry at Helsinki University Central Hospital explains that children who rack up the most screen time were more likely to have emotional symptoms such as anxiety and depression, low mood and fearfulness, as well as behavioural symptoms such as anger management issues and oppositional behaviour.
· A study by researchers at Alberta published in April 2019 (?) found that 5-year-olds who spent 2 or more hours a day on a screen were 5 times more likely to be reported by parents as exhibiting symptoms of ADHD when compared to their peers who were on screens for 30 mins or less. Piush Mandhane, an associate professor of paediatrics at the University of Alberta who led the study explains that “screen time doesn’t cause ADHD.” Rather, parents were more likely to label screen-time heavy kids, with behaviour commonly associated with ADHD such as ‘hyperactive’ and ‘inattentive.’
· Early data from a landmark National Institute of Health (NIH) study that began in 2018 indicates that children that spend more than two hours a day on screen-time activities scored lower on language and thinking tests, and some children with more than 7 hours a day of screen time experienced thinning of the brain’s cortex, the area of the brain related to critical thinking and reasoning.
As Dr Jennifer Cross, child behavioural expert explains “If young children spend most of their time engaging with an iPad, smartphone or TV, all of which are highly entertaining, it can be hard to get them engaged in non-electronic activities, such as playing with toys to foster imagination and creativity, exploring outdoors, and playing with other children to develop appropriate social skills.”
Expert Tips for DevelopingGood Screen Habits
In her article ‘What Does Too Much Screen Time Do to Children’s Brains?’ Dr Jennifer Cross, attending paediatrician and behavioural expert at New York’s Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital shares the following tips for developing good screen habits with your child.
· Co-watch whenever possible.
This gives parents not only to monitor what their child is consuming, but the ability to turn it into a learning exercise. Parents can help children to better comprehend what they are watching, by commenting on things that happen, asking questions and interacting with the media by signing along etc.
· Choose media wisely
Organisations such as Common Sense Media, can be particularly helpful for parents looking for information about age-appropriate apps, games and programs.
· Keep bedtime, mealtimes and family-time screen-free
It’s important to balance online and offline screen time so that screens don’t impinge on quality family time.
· Limit your own phone use
Model healthy screen habits for your children. How your children see you behave around technology will greatly affect how they interact with it as they grow.
· Emphasis the big three: sleep, healthy nutrition, and exercise
· These 3 all-important pillars of health can be negatively impacted by excessive screen use. Children who spend more time on screens have been shown to eat less fruit and vegetables and more fast-food, and get less sleep and exercise.
Lindsay Kneteman ‘Here’s Why Screens Bring out the Worst in Your Kid,’ Todays’ Parent, January 15 2020. https://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/heres-why-screens-bring-out-the-worst-in-your-kid/
 Janette Niiranen et al, High-dose electronic media use in five-year-olds and its association with their psychosocial symptoms: a cohort study,’ National Library of Medicine, March 17,2021 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33731383/
SukhpreetK. Tamana, ‘Screen-time is associated with inattention problems in preschoolers: Results from the CHILD birth cohort study’ PLOS One, April 172019. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0213995
 DrJennifer Cross, ‘What Does Too Much Screen Time Do to Children’s Brains?’Health Matters; New York Presbyterian, https://healthmatters.nyp.org/what-does-too-much-screen-time-do-to-childrens-brains/