Screen time for children: Implications and help

By By Raj Khillan & Michael Audas
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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Technology is an integral part of contemporary society for both adults and children as they go about their daily lives. The accessibility and ubiquity powerful devices, such iPads and laptops, has put a wealth of art, literature, film, and music at the fingertips of virtually everyone in society.

But while we should rightly celebrate that the great treasury of human knowledge, creativity, and wisdom stands open to all, there is also due cause for wariness about more concerning implications of these devices being used inappropriately, or to excess.

Children, in particular (though not exclusively), require forms of enrichment not available through a screen: face-to-face interactions with friends and family, imaginative play with real-world objects and people, exploration of natural environments, and physical exercise. If a child is using technology at the expense of the foregoing experiences, then they are missing out on ingredients vital to a healthy developmental trajectory and preparation for adult life.

In the sections below, you will find brief outlines of some of the negative impacts associated with excessive screen time—particularly in the context of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)—alongside some of the benefits that may derive from responsible use of technology. There is also a section detailing the health-authority consensus regarding how much time children should be spending on their devices. However, it is important to note from the outset that these recommendations may not be realistic or achievable in very context; consequently, the last section contains suggestions that can help families reduce the negative impacts associated with screen time, without necessarily drastically reducing screen time.

Using devices for educational purposes—so long as they are not the only platform through which media takes place—stands to yield many benefits, and children learning how to use these devices themselves will doubtless equip them to thrive in the increasingly-technologically driven modern workplace. But such benefits as they stand to gain will rarely yield themselves up without the guiding hand of a parent, teacher, or older brother/sister. Devices can in no way replace any of the above when it comes to facilitating deep and meaningful learning. Why? Because this requires that whatever is being taught is explored and reinforced through conversation and discourse—something which even the most sophisticated of devices is not capable.

What are the negative impacts of screen time?
  • In young children (24–36 months), prolonged exposure to screens is associated with poorer outcomes on screening tests for cognitive, social, and behavioural development (Madigan et al., 2019).
  • Small, but significant, correlations have been observed between 2 screen time and increases in Body Mass Index (BMI) (Cox et al., 2012).
  • Moderate evidence exists of a link between screen time and poorer psychosocial functioning (Hinkley et al., 2014; Stiglic & Viner, 2019).
  • Increased screen time seems to result in a decrease of the number of minutes children spend sleeping (Cespedes et al., 2014).
What about screen time and autism?

The developmental of linguistic, social, and behavioural skills are often delayed in children on the autism spectrum. Furthermore, children with ASD require more practice, in ecologically-valid/naturalistic contexts (i.e., in real-life, or face-to-face interactions), than their neurotypical peers in order to develop skills in these domains. Excessive time spent using electronic devices may deprive these children of sufficient opportunities to practice these skills.

For some children with ASD, however, technology can be the key which opens up a world of communication to them that would otherwise be prohibitively-difficult to access, whether this be due to social anxiety or limitations on the ability to communicate through speech. Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) technology— such as Proloquo2Go—has opened up new horizons for both young and adult-aged communicators for whom speech is either difficult or undesirable. While ’voice chat’ platforms such as Discord provide a forum through which those who find face-to-face interactions severely anxiety-provoking can engage in conversations with peeraged interactants. With the proper supports in place, the same skills that someone with anxiety deploys over a voice chat program can be generalised to face-to-face interactions as well.

Are there any benefits to screen time?

There is modest research evidence suggesting that using electronic devices for internet and gaming may serve to aid in stress management, when not taken to excess (Hinkley et al., 2017). It might also be reasonably inferred that games with a heavy emphasis on narrative and dialogue—especially as conveyed via written text—might 3 support the development of vocabulary and certain literacy skills in much the same way as reading books. There is limited research data available to either support or refute this speculation, however. Of course, there are many educational purposes to which electronic devices can be harnessed. Apps which present storybooks and other reading material in interactive formats (e.g., www.vooks.com), may help engage readers who otherwise struggle to remain engaged with static images and text. Online learning videos, such as those produced by Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org), can help children with a more-visual learning style grasp tricky concepts in domains such as maths, written composition, and science.

How much time should children be spending in front of screens?

The following recommendations are drawn from a 2016 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, 2016). The Australian Government Department of Health guidelines regarding screen time also align with these recommendations (Australian Government Department of Health, 2021).

  • 0–24 mths: No time spent watching television or using other electronic media.
  • 2–5: Limited to less than an hour a day.
  • 5–7: Limited to less than two hours a day.
How much time are they spending in front of screens?

By 12-13 years old, children spend on average up to 30% of their daily waking time on screens .Children across all groups are exceeding offical recommendations for maximum-daily screen time. Children aged 2 and under in the United States averaged 3 hours, and 3–5-year-olds average 2 hours, 28 minutes a day of screen time (Chen & Adler, 2019). A report released in October of 2019 by Common Sense Media found that children children in the United States between the ages of 8–12 spend an average of 4 hours, 44 minutes each day in front of a screen. The average only increases as children grow older, with 13–18 year olds spending an average of 7 hours and 22 minutes in front of screens each day. These figures do not take into account the amount of time spent in front of a screen for educational purposes (Media, 2019). A report published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 2016 yielded similar figures, finding that at children aged 4–5 were spending more than two hours each week day in front of a screen for entertainment. This average increased to more than three hours per week day, and four per weekend day, for children aged 12–13 years (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2016).

What can parents do to mitigate the negative effects of screen time?

The main way to reduce the potential negative effects of screen time is to reduce the amount of time your children spend interacting with  screens. However, radically curbing the amount of time that children spend with their devices might not be practical in every situation. It is also critically important that time which has been deducted from their screen-time allowance be replaced with other engaging activities (e.g., physical play, board games, arts & crafts, etc.).

The suggestions below are aimed at reducing the harmful effects of screen time, even in the absence of drastically curtailing said screen time.

Develop a Family Media Plan

Developing a ’family media plan’ together with your children is a way that you can them in the process of deciding how technology can best be used to enhance the lives of everyone in the family. It is also a valuable means of children learning to distinguish responsible and irresponsible uses of technology, which, nowadays, is a life skill. Access the link below in order to undertake a guided process to the development of a family media plan: https://healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx

Play games that you and your children can enjoy together

Games like Fireboy and Watergirl or Cat Quest require lots of cooperation between players, and are a great way for you to join in with your children such that their otherwise-solitary play experience becomes one situated in a social and communicative context. You can enhance these experiences by modelling how to comment on what is happening in the game—especially when something unexpected or amusing happens.

 Co-view media

Many children view media which they cannot entirely process at their current developmental level. Viewing media with their parents allows children to tune in to the relevant and important contextual and subtextual information that they might otherwise miss. This is also a great opportunity for parents to open up a discussion about values, and how they relate to the media being viewed.

Prohibit content that is not age-appropriate

Be firm about adhering to age-restriction ratings for media that your children consume. Children should also respect any additional restrictions on content that your family has decided they should abide by.

Education your children about the dangers of the internet

Emphasise that while the internet can be a place where you can find all sorts of wonderful and enriching experiences, it is also host to many dangers. Help your children understand that they should protect their private information—not revealing their name, place of residence, location of their school, etc. to people whom they do not know. Communicate, also, that anything they ’post’ or ’upload’ on the internet is permanent, and that everywhere they go, they potentially leave a ’digital footprint,’ that could be traced back to them, and it is therefore important that they should be respectful and careful about what they post.


Dr Raj Khillan is a Paediatrcian and Director of  Western Specialist Centre. Michael Audas is a Speech Pathologist

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