How much is too much? A psychologist explains how too much screen time can affect children

Published:
Updated:

Everywhere you look, we are inundated with screens. We see TVs, smartphones and tablets.

We use them to entertain, communicate, and educate but how much screen time is too much for your kids, and how can you keep them safe?

Dr. Michael Flores is a clinical psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

He said he sees a lot of parents who struggle with how much time their kids spend with technology. "Information on parenting is typically passed down from generation to generation," he said.

Advertisement - Story continues below

"It's also based off decades of research. However, technology has advanced so quickly in the last few decades that we haven't been able to keep up with that."

Dr. Flores said we basically have a generation of parents who are scrambling to find information because they can't ask their parents. "The technology wasn't there, even 20 years ago," he added.

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics created guidelines for limiting screen time based on age.

For children 18 months or younger, they recommend no screen time at all unless it's a video chat with relatives, like FaceTime or Skype.

"Language development is such a big part of that stage of development," said Dr. Flores.

"Children need to hear and see and not rely on technology to teach (them)."

For kids two to five years of age, you can start introducing them to digital media up to an hour per day.

Make sure it is educational programming, that you actively watch with them.

"If you watch a lot of young children's TV, they'll often ask a question and then pause for a really long time which allows the parents to ask the question again to make sure the child understands, and for the child to think about it and respond."

For children aged six and up the AAP recommends limiting screen time, and monitoring what your kids are doing or watching on their devices.

The guidelines also say to make sure their screen time does not interfere with sleep or taking part in physical activities.

"I think it's an important time for parents to make sure that they know what games their children are playing, the types of programs that they're watching, and to ask questions to make sure that they understand what they're watching, (and) what they're learning from it."

Dr. Flores said for older kids, if you cannot reduce the amount of time they are spending with technology, focus on the quality of what they are watching.

Consider documentaries or other educational programming and make sure they understand what they are watching.

Show an interest in what they are watching or doing.

"The only way for that to happen is for parents to take an interest in that material as well. That is, to be engaged. And it may be the most boring thing in the world for you, but you have to maintain some of that interest so you know what your child is doing," Dr. Flores said.

A study published in 2019 looked at physical changes to preschoolers' brains, associated with how much time they spent in front of a screen.

Scientists noted physical changes in the brain's white matter, associated with language development. "This is the first time people are looking into the actual physical changes of a child's brain because of screen usage," said Dr. Flores. He also added that research is struggling to keep up with how quickly technology is advancing.

Dr. Flores added that not all screen time is bad. "I remember being in 7th and 8th grade and having a science fair project, and having to go to the library for, you know, three weekends in a row with my mom," he remembered.

"(I) was there the whole day trying to research everything. And now, a similar child could do that in two to three hours with their parent at home."

Click here for more information on the AAP's recommendations regarding screen time.