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The Big Screen Time Debate: How Much Is Enough?

The amount of screen time you should be allowing your little ones is a subject of much debate. It is also a subject that creates a lot of anxiety and shame for us mothers. When I was pregnant I vowed that my daughter would not get any screen time for the first few years but I realised very early on that a, it is impossible to keep  her away from a screen since screens are everywhere and b, a mother needs to allow a little screen time to keep her sanity. Yes, I am “that mom” that sometimes uses her TV as a babysitter.

But how much screen time is safe and what are the latest guidelines? I found the research on this quite interesting and I wanted to share this with you in my latest post.

WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL ABOUT SCREEN TIME?

There are many studies linking screen time with negative physical and psychosocial health in children. To date, excessive screen time has been linked with behavioural problems such as aggression and ADHD, anxiety and depression, sleep disturbances, poor language development and impaired vision.

The problem with this research is that the definition of ‘excessive’ varies between studies and it is also very difficult to measure when there are so many different types of screens (TVs, iPads, iPhones, laptops etc.) and content (video games, social media etc.) available.

WHAT ARE THE LATEST GUIDELINES?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is a pretty important public health agency so it would make sense to follow what they recommend with regards to screen time. Their latest guidelines were released earlier this year and stress the importance of physical activity, quality sedentary activities such as reading and puzzles, and good quality sleep in children under 5 years of age.

“Improving physical activity, reducing sedentary time and ensuring quality sleep in young children will improve their physical, mental health and wellbeing, and help prevent childhood obesity and associated diseases later in life” – Dr Fiona Bull (WHO)

The WHO hope that with these guidelines healthy habits can be established early on in children’s lives and translate through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. Below are the WHO guidelines.

Children less than 1 year old should

  • Be physically active for at least 30 minutes several times a day through “interactive floor-based play”, including tummy time.
  • Not be restrained for more than one hour at a time (in a chair/seat and even on a caregiver’s back). When restrained they should get no screen time but instead be engaged in a quality sedentary activity such as reading.
  • Have 14-17 hours (0-3 months) or 12-16 hours (4-11 months) of good quality sleep a day. This includes naps.

Children aged 2-3 should

  • Be physically active for at least 180 minutes a day, spread throughout the day. This includes moderate-vigorous physical activity.
  • Not be restrained for more than one hour at a time (in a chair/seat and even on a caregiver’s back) or sit for extended periods at a time. For children younger than 2 years, screen time is not recommended. Once older than 2 years then no more than 1 hour should be allowed. When sedentary, rather engage in quality activities such as reading and puzzles.
  • Have 11-14 hours of good quality sleep a day. This includes naps.

Children aged 3-5 should

  • Be physically active for at least 180 minutes a day, with at least 60 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity, spread throughout the day.
  • Not be restrained for more than one hour at a time (in a chair/seat and even on a caregiver’s back) or sit for extended periods at a time. Children should have no more than 1 hour of screen time a day. When sedentary, rather engage in quality activities such as reading and puzzles.
  • Have 10-13 hours of good quality sleep a day. This includes naps.

In summary, the WHO do not recommend any screen time in children under 2 years and in children between 2 and 5 years of age only a maximum of 1 hour should be allowed.

Lets have a look at some other guidelines. Guidelines in Canada, Australia and South Africa also recommend no screen time in children under 2 and only up to 1 hour in children 2-5 years old.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend no screen time in children under 18 months. Children aged 18-24 months can be slowly introduced to screens but programs should be of high quality and parents always need to watch with their children. In children aged 2-5 years, screen time should be for a maximum of 1 hour only and parents should still co-view in order to help children understand what they are seeing.

In the UK things are a little different. The WHO recommendations are actually being challenged. I won’t get into the nitty gritty on what constitutes high quality research evidence but basically what the British are saying is that the evidence the WHO guidelines is based on is poor quality and therefore no conclusions can be made. There simply is not enough evidence to confirm that screen time itself is directly harmful to a child’s health at any age and therefore the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK has said it is “impossible to recommend age-appropriate time limits” on screen time.

So now that we know there isn’t much evidence to support the dangers of screen time we can probably breathe a little easier and not feel so guilty the next time we put on Peppa Pig just so that we can enjoy a cup of coffee.

The WHO guidelines are not really based on what negative effects screen time has on the brain but rather based on what negative effects sitting in front of a screen has on a child’s life. Decide for yourself how much screen time is enough for your child. Do this based on their developmental age, individual needs and also on what you want for your family. Screen time should never replace opportunities for your child to learn or be active, it should not replace precious family time and most definitely not delay naps or bedtime. When it does, then it does become a risk to your child’s physical, mental health and wellbeing.

RESOURCES

https://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=353ab0ea-7687-415f-a529-3689514f0bc8%40sessionmgr101

https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/904624

https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/908312

https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/913189

https://www.nhsggc.org.uk/about-us/professional-support-sites/screen-time/screen-time-guidelines/#

https://www.nhs.uk/news/pregnancy-and-child/who-guidelines-screen-time/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4851593/

https://www.wits.ac.za/news/latest-news/opinion/2019/2019-02/why-screen-time-needs-to-be-limited.html

https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/24-04-2019-to-grow-up-healthy-children-need-to-sit-less-and-play-more

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