How Much Screen Time is Too Much?

My kids are tweens and teens now, so my husband and I didn’t benefit from the existence of modern-day iGadgets when we took our toddlers to restaurants or on planes.  We had to resort to the always-dependable standbys of books, crayons, and play-doh.  But increasingly I’ve noticed a new phenomenon: parents with small children arriving at restaurants or airports with nothing; no play bags, no books or toys, nothing.  What do they do when their kids become fussy or bored? Like magicians, they pull out their iPads or iPhones (or, even more increasingly, their children’s iPads or iPods) and the kids watch television shows or play games.  And each time I’m filled with wonder and small bit of trepidation. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge them. In fact, I envy them.  I still remember the horror that is a bored child in a restaurant with nothing to play with but sugar packets, cloth napkins, and utensils. But I still wonder if these iGadgets are the best ways to pacify small children? Are those the same as reading to a child or playing with blocks and crayons? My age is probably showing with the mere act of asking the question, and this is probably a “get off my lawn” question.  But I wonder nonetheless. 

And then I wondered, what about our tweens and teens who are perpetually glued to their gadgets?  What about the hours upon hours that they spend on Instagram or watching Vine videos on their iPhones or iPads? Should we be limiting (or further limiting) their gadget time? And what about all the television they watch? How much is too much?

So I did a little research and here’s what I found.    

What the research says:

How big is the issue?

You may be wondering how much television toddlers and small children are actually watching?  Recent studies have shown that many children below the age of three watch more than 1 hour of television each day [16,18,21,28], and often children of that age watch more than 2 hours of television each day [1,18,19,21,28,35,36].  However, most of these numbers don’t account for IPAD or smart phone use and thus may underrepresent the cumulative time spent on electronic devices. 

And what about older children?  Studies have shown that many tweens and teens spend 3 to 4 hours each day in screen-based activities, such as watching television, playing video games, or using the computer [33,34,44,48,49]. 

   
  
 
  
    
  
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     Figure 1 : Average number of hours spent using electronics (television, computers, video games, etc) on a daily basis as a function of age for children.  Based on references cited at end of blog.  Data shown as average +/- SD.

Figure 1: Average number of hours spent using electronics (television, computers, video games, etc) on a daily basis as a function of age for children.  Based on references cited at end of blog.  Data shown as average +/- SD.

That sounds like a lot to me, but is it? Well, when you compare 3 to 4 hours per day to reports of tweens spending approximately 1 hour each day on physical activity [34,48], 4 hours per week on studying [48], and less than 2 hours per week on reading for pleasure [48], it starts to seem a bit excessive. For a comparison of how kids spend their time, check out Figure 2.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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     Figure 2 : Comparison of time spent on television, media, homework, sports, and reading for children. Based on references cited at end of blog. Data shown as average +/- SD.

Figure 2: Comparison of time spent on television, media, homework, sports, and reading for children. Based on references cited at end of blog. Data shown as average +/- SD.

But is it affecting them negatively?  What does the research tell us about the effect of electronics on children?

And the verdict is?

Many studies have been done in this area, and I’ve summarized them based on the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatricians [2].

RECOMMENDATION: Remove television sets from children’s bedrooms. 

WHY? Studies have consistently found that children with televisions in their rooms score lower on standard achievement tests [22], have a hard time going to bed and were more tired during the day [16,29], and watch more violent shows or movies rated for older children or adults [16].

 

RECOMMENDATION: Limit children’s total media time to no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day and discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years.  Along with this recommendation, parents are asked to encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together. 

WHY? Well, let’s break that down based on the age of the child.

For children less than 2 or 3 years old, the research shows that television viewing is associated with many negative outcomes, including lower reading recognition and reading comprehension scores [18], higher levels of hyperactivity-inattention [18], lower levels of prosocial behavior [18], decreased child vocalization (meaning the child says fewer words) [14], and reading less [14].  These children have a lower likelihood of being able to read compared with their peers from households with low media use [21]. 

And watching television at this early stage can have lasting effects.  Researchers have shown that “higher levels of tele-viewing at 29 months of age predicted lower levels of classroom engagement and mathematics achievement” in fourth grade [1].  This study also found that toddlers who watched more television played more video games, spent less time in physical activity, achieved lower fitness scores, and were less inclined to participate in activities that required physical effort [1]. In fact, other studies have found that “longer daily duration of media exposure at age 6 months predicted lower cognitive development and language development at age 14 months” [35] and a consistent pattern of negative associations between television viewing before age 3 years and adverse cognitive outcomes at ages 6 and 7 years [36].

Television viewing at these early ages also affects how parents interact with their children.  In households where children watch more television, the parents spoke fewer words to their children and spent less time reading to them [14].  Why? “Some of these reductions are likely due to children being left in front of the television screen, but others likely reflect situations in which adults, though present, are distracted by the screen and not interacting with their infant in a discernible manner [14]”.  In fact, just having the tv on in the background decreased the number of words spoken by the parent to the child, the vocalization of the child, and the conversational turns between the parent and the child [14].

You may be wondering about those DVDs and television shows marketed as  educational or specifically for children?  Are results the same when children watch those shows? Studies have shown that “apart from the gains in word knowledge we would expect from developing children, there was no evidence that children learned words specifically highlighted in a DVD focused on teaching children those words. In fact, earlier exposure was related to lower scores on a measure of general vocabulary knowledge” [41].  One analysis found a large negative association between viewing of baby DVDs/videos and vocabulary acquisition in children age 8 to 16 months [39].

What should small children do instead? Well, experts believe that “unstructured playtime is more valuable for the developing brain than any electronic media exposure” [21], and experts emphasize the importance of non-electronic based play.

Can children do both? What about the possibility of children playing outside and watching television? Well research shows that children younger than 5 years who watch television spend less time in creative play and less time interacting with parents or siblings [21].  So those who watch television want to watch more, and tend to spend less time in play. 

The results are similar for tweens and teens, although the number of relevant studies is less.  In older kids, media has been found to negatively affect academic success later in life and has been associated with decreased achievement, decreased attention, and decreased reading.  Studies have found that:

More television = lower chance of college degree.  Lower mean television viewing hours between 5 and 11 years of age were a stronger predictor of achieving a university degree [26]. In addition, time spent watching television among sixth- and seventh-grade students in the United States has been found to be inversely correlated with reading and homework [26].

More television/video games = less reading.  The more time spent playing video games and watching television, the less time spent reading for pleasure. Interestingly, spending more time in computer play, studying, or communicating was not associated with reduced time reading. In fact, the more hours spent using the computer for studying, the greater the time spent reading [48]

More television/video games = less studying.  As with reading, the results showed that greater video game and television time were associated with less nonscreen study time [48].

More television/video games = more attention problems. Those who exceeded the AAP-recommended amount of daily television and video game exposure were more likely to be above average in attention problems [49].

 

RECOMMENDATION: View television programs along with children, and discuss the content.

WHY?  Scientists believe that child-focused shows or interactive activities may not be harmful because they increase parent-child interactions. Studies have shown that parent-child interaction is the best means to teach children and have been shown to be the most effective way of increasing your child's cognition [43] when compared to television alone or t.v. watching with parents.  So perhaps it’s not the content of children’s shows alone that is important, but the fact that parents discuss the educational content with their children, further reinforcing the material. 

 

RECOMMENDATION: Encourage alternative entertainment for children, including reading, athletics, hobbies, and creative play.

WHY? Reading, creative play and other activities are more supportive of a child’s academic development that watching television, based on the research we just reviewed.  So the thinking behind this recommendation is understandable.  But should children partake in these activities while others in the family watch television in the same room? Ideally no. Studies have shown that even having the television on in the background has a negative effect on children's cognition [46,47]. Similarly, research has found that children play and interact less with adults when a television is on.  Studies have also found that background television not only reduced the length of time that a child played but also that it reduced the child’s focused attention during play [21].  The reason is believed to be two-fold: background television has a) the direct effect of distracting a child and b) the indirect effect of taking a parent’s attention away from the child [21].

I should note that I found three studies that reported the positive effects of media on children. A study by Anderson et al. was funded by the Markle Foundation [7], a strong advocate of PBS channels.  A study conducted by Zimmerman et al. in 2005 found only positive effects for those greater than 3 years old [36].  And the other study was done by CJ Ferguson, a researcher who I discussed in a previous blog post regarding the impact of video games on children.  The table below summarizes the studies that I reviewed for this post.  As you can see, the vast majority of studies find deleterious effects of television and video game viewing on children.  So although there are credible studies that have concluded the opposite, the vast majority agree that electronic media generally have a negative impact on kids.  

Table 1: Summary of clinical findings related to media exposure and child-related outcomes.

What does this all mean?

My take-home is that there is such a thing as too much television and media usage for children.  And I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that these findings terrified me.  When I discussed them with my husband, and together we analyzed our kids’ screen habits, we were horrified to realize that our son played 12-15 hours of video games some weekends!  Not only were we surprised and horrified, but our son had no idea how much time he spent on games.  That was an eye-opening discussion for sure.   I’m happy to report that we have instituted a limit on their media usage.  And, perhaps more importantly, we now ask our children to log their media usage so that they see how many hours they spend on electronics. They still watch television and play games on their iPads, because we all know that a childhood wouldn’t be a childhood without Nickelodeon or Football on Sunday.  But now we also realize that childhood should include playing outside and drawing and even just sitting and looking aimlessly out the window. 

One note: This blog doesn’t speak directly to the use of iPADs, which some believe may not be as harmful as other devices [10,11].  But experts think it’s safe to say that any activity that decreases interaction with other people and the use of traditional toys will have a deleterious effect on your child’s development [9,10,11,12]. 

References:

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