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Screen time

Updated: Mar 11

by Dr Stephanie Satariano (Educational Psychologist)


Chinese psychologists have started to diagnose ‘screen addiction’ as a clinical disorder. Taiwan have created a law to limit children’s screen time. Although the effectiveness is yet to be established, Asia may be a step ahead of us. A recent study in America found that in just over 2 years childhood overall screen time has doubled and childhood mobile use has tripled.

Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated clinical psychologist, states “We’re throwing screens at children all day long, giving them distractions rather than teaching them how to self-soothe, to calm themselves down”. Screens make parents’ lives easier– but do they make their child’s life better? Do they help their child develop?


UCLA researches have found that children who went 5 days without exposure to screens were significantly better at reading emotions – just 5 days had an impact! There is no research to prove that screen time has any positive effect, yet there is a vast array of research that has found that screen time can have a negative effect. Excessive screen time can lead to differences in brain development, obesity, delays in language development, sleep difficulties, emotion processing difficulties and attention problems. In fact, the AAP (American Academy of Paediatrician) recommends that children under the age of 2 are not exposed to screens at all and children between 2-8 children do not watch for more than 1 hour per day.


The reality is that our children are growing up in an age where technology and screens are a big part of our life, and just like we need to teach our children to read, write and talk, I believe we also need to teach then how to use electronic devices effectively and regulate the extent to which they use them. So, how can we ensure that children get the most out of their screen time?


The most important factor in a child’s overall development and brain development is happy and warm interactions with their parents (and other people in their lives). So, watch TV or play on the tablet/smart phone with your children. Make it interactive and extend the learning - teach them new vocabulary or ask them questions about how the characters are feeling and what they are doing.


Research shows that children under 2 learn best from face-to-face interaction, mainly because their symbolic thinking has not yet developed. So, connect the screen to the real world. If they’ve watched a programme about animals, point the animals out in their environment. If they’ve learnt a song about the numbers, count the number of penne in their pasta dish. Turn the screen into reality!


> Children thrive when they feel safe and secure; routines and boundaries are a big part of how children feel safe and secure. Give them boundaries around screen time; make it part of your routine, for example, 30 minutes before dinner.


> Value your time with your children and don’t let screen time interfere with critical social and emotional learning experiences – such as dinner-time, bath-time, or when they are with other children.


> Teach your child how to self-soothe and deal with disappointment, rather than use the screen to ‘shut them up’ when they are misbehaving or feeling restless.


> Model appropriate behavior – don’t attempt to limit their use of screen time while you are sitting on your phone.


> Children take time to notice everything in their environment and repetition helps them with this (hence why children like to do things again, and again!). So allow them to watch the same thing repeatedly, or point out different aspects of what they are watching.


> Background TV has been found to interfere with children’s play and development; therefore if not watching the TV, switch if off!


>Screens and TV over-stimulate our minds, especially the minds and nervous system of young children; so, avoid screen time before bed and remove all screens and media from a child’s bedroom.


So, after reading this, do you immediately want to start reducing the amount of screen time your child is exposed to, but fear that the tantrums and backlash would be too huge? What can you do?


- Firstly, expect it – there is no way that human interaction can compete with the stimulation that a screen and TV provide (in fact, most experts in the field would classify it as too much stimulation).


- Support your child to deal with the frustration and disappointment

- support them to self-soothe by remaining calm

- try distract them with their favourite toy or activity (preferably an active one).

- keep in mind – new routines and behaviours take a while to set up and children test boundaries, so the crying may get worse before it gets better!