The Hard Truths About Screen Time

5 min
Jul 4, 2018

How much screen time too much screen time?

When we are talking about screen time, it includes any time an individual is in front of a screen, including gaming devices, television, computers, iPads/tablets, and phones.

Pediatricians have released information regarding how much screen time is “the right amount” since it is recognized that children learn best through face-to-face interactions with others.

  • Children under the age of 2 years – no screen time is recommended. Children at this age cannot distinguish between cartoons or make-believe and reality. It is ok for children of this age to be involved in apps such as Skype or Facetime since these are face-to-face interactive media and involve social interactions with others, such as grandparents.
  • 2 to 5 years of age – less than 1 hour per day
  • 5 years and older – two hours per day. It is recognized that this may not always be possible with the increase of digital media, so it is recommended to teach children about responsible use of technology and monitor the “quality” of their electronic use. All digital media use is not equal, just like all calories that we take in are not equal. Set rules about digital screen time and engage with your child in the digital world.

What are some of the most common concerns you hear about screen time from parents?

Parents are not usually concerned about the amount of time their child is spending in front of a screen until adolescence, when their teen becomes “obsessed” with their phone and social media. Studies have shown that teens spend more than 6 hours per day on a screen and it can interfere with sleep and homework because they are worried about missing out on something. I frequently spend time with teens and parents talking about how to acknowledge the importance of social media, texting, etc. in the teen’s life, but how to balance this to ensure they are getting quality sleep.

Are there proven consequences to too much screen time or what some may refer to as screen time addiction? Is there an emotional impact? Is there an impact on the developing brain?

There is research that suggests that too much screen time in children can cause numerous issues

  • Screen time can be disruptive to sleep because the light from the screen interferes with melatonin production. Melatonin can be tricked into being released later, causing the body clock to be set later for sleep. Less quality or quantity of sleep can cause other issues and increase behavioural challenges, emotional dysregulation, and mood issues.
  • Gaming is an exciting and stimulating activity which can cause more of the “feel good” chemical in the brain to be released and can result in children becoming less sensitive to the reward pathway. This means that they will require more and more stimulation to experience pleasure and may become less focused and motivated. There is some suggestion that children who have too much screen time are more inattentive, aggressive, and are not as able to self-soothe.
  • Too much screen time cuts down the time children spend outdoors and engaged in physical activity. Research suggests that spending time outdoors helps with attention and lowers stress and aggression.
  • Overuse of electronic devices has been linked to issues in the frontal lobe of the brain due to being overstimulated and hyperaroused. This can result in symptoms that can look like mood or behavioural disorders.
  • Screen time is not interactive, even though many believe it is because children may be “talking” or “playing with” others. However, it is not face-to-face interaction and therefore, does not have the same benefits for social skills. Children may struggle with social interactions because they are more comfortable with spending time in front of a screen.

As a parent, I’ve heard of something called metabolic syndrome when it comes to screen time. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Research has found a connection between metabolic syndrome and increased screen time in adolescents. Metabolic syndrome includes a number of issues including abdominal obesity, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. As daily screen time increases, the risk for metabolic syndrome increases as well, regardless of physical activity level.

Can the lack of physical activity/movement associated with this habit have lasting effects on psychological health?

No matter why children are less physically active, there are risks to their mental health. Physical activity has been shown to be a protective factor against mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and is helpful to improve children’s focus, attention, memory, and sleep.

A lot of schools are rushing to put technology (iPads, etc.) into the hands of children. What’s your stance on this?

Schools should be aware of the guidelines for electronic use for children and not completely disregard this in the name of education. However, there are pros and cons of technology use in schools. Since technology is the way of the future, children need to develop skills to use it, but at the right age and stage. Technology can be a helpful tool for students, especially students with disabilities. Technology can also be a learning tool and provide access to information. Electronic use should be balanced at school, just like at home, so that students have many opportunities for physical activity and face-to-face interaction and collaboration with others.

What are some of the tips you may have for limiting your kid’s screen time?

When parents think about limiting their child’s screen time, it is important to reflect on their own screen time first. Many parents do not consider that they are role models for their children and how their children view screen time. If a parent uses screen time to relax, it teaches children that screen time can be used as a tool to soothe or pacify kids. There are not only concerns about how much children use screens, but how much adults do since it takes them away from being available for their children. It is helpful to set up family rules for screen time and have everyone follow the rules

  1. Set up technology free zones in the home, such as the dinner table.
  2. When doing things as a family, turn off devices.
  3. Do not use the television as a “background”.
  4. No screen time at least 1 hour before bed. Do not allow screens in the child’s bedroom since they interfere with sleep.
  5. Screen time should ideally be followed by physical activity or outside time. Make efforts to balance screen time with other healthy activities, such as family games, reading, outdoor play, crafts, etc.
  6. Play dates with other children should not solely involve screen time. Set rules that at least 50% of the time needs to be doing another activity.
  7. Try not to use screen time to distract or calm your child. Instead, teach them how to be bored (i.e. how to problem solve and plan), calming skills, etc. Plan ahead when possible and bring other activities for your child when attending appointments, etc.
  8. No screen time before school.
  9. If your child becomes upset when stopping their screen time, be consistent. You an acknowledge their upset and frustration, but do not give in. Instead, guide them to another activity or toy.
  10. Have children use technology in public spaces in the home.


Victoria L. Dunckley. Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Screen Time