Screen Time: How to Achieve a Healthy Balance for Kids

Children and screen time

How much screen time is too much for children?

In my work as a private educational consultant I am often asked what I think about screen time for children and what I’ve included in this post is pretty much the answer I give.

I begin by referring parents to caringforkids.cps.ca.  This website has been developed by the Canadian Pediatric Society and suggests there should be “no screen based activities for children under 2” and that for older children that time should be limited to “less than 1 to 2 hours per day”.

Many parents of older children, especially teens, laugh at the idea of limiting screen time 1 to 2 hours per day, stating that just homework time alone could require that amount of screen time and I don’t disagree.

While 1 to 2 hours for teens in particular is probably not realistic,  rather than hovering around our kids with a stopwatch, we can instead turn our monitoring of screen time into an opportunity to teach our kids the idea of: in all things – balance.

Here is what we in the children development field know.  The first two years of a child’s life are an important time for brain development.  Screen time has the potential to stop a child from interacting with both their primary caregivers and their environment, interactions which are essential experiences required to help young children develop their physical, social and cognitive skills.

And while we certainly do need to be mindful of how often we are allowing our young ones to be in front of a screen, again – in all things, balance, because as educators we know that one of the most important things we can do with our children under the age of two is to spend time reading and singing with them.

These interactions are essential to developing the skills children need for their language development and to lay the foundation for what will become their early reading skills.  Interestingly, whether those interactions happen using a traditional paper-based book or through a book or app on an Ipad, it really does not matter; it is the interaction itself and not its form that is important.

Balancing screen time: Father on computer while son reads a book.

Experts say it’s important for families to limit screen time and for parents to model a healthy balance.

Still, it is important to adhere to recommended screen time because research has found that too much screen time has the potential to directly impact the development of children’s brains.

In an excellent article by Dr. Victoria Dunckley, Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain, Dr. Dunckley analyzed numerous neuro-imaging based research and found too much screen time will actually change the way a brain looks.

Research has shown that parts of the brains of children and youth identified with screen time addiction show atrophy or shrinkage while other parts of the brain do not seem to develop to the right level of thickness.  Screen addiction also seems to interfere with chemical balances in the brain and it impairs cognitive functioning.

Here’s another reason to be mindful of screen time:  Obesity rates in childhood are going up significantly and we know that too much screen time is a significant contributor to this change in children.

In the 2013 Active Healthy Kids Canada report, Canadians received a failing grade for Sedentary Behaviour.  This meant more and more children are spending increasing amounts of time in front of screens and less time getting up and moving.  It’s estimated children in grades 6 to 12 are spending up to 8 hours a day in front of a screen in one form or another.

Here are some tips for families to achieve screen time balance:

  • Allow children access to apps and TV shows that teach them important concepts like the alphabet and early numeracy skills but spend time watching with them and limit their amount of time with screen exposure.
  • For children under 2 try to keep screen exposure to the absolute minimum.
  • Make an effort as a family to turn off the TV, put away the devices and go outside as a family. DO something.
  • In our house we treat tech time like a library book. My daughter, who is 14, can “sign out” her phone/ipad once she can show us that her homework is done.  She has 60 minutes available to her and then the devices are due back in.
  • For older children, do not let tech devices or screens live in their rooms. Teens and young adults have not developed their own impulse control system to the point where they can turn off the TV and go to bed or to resist texting back their friend who is reaching out at midnight.  In our house, my daughter’s phone, Ipad and computer are all turned in at 10:00 at the latest.
  • Model the idea of “in all things balance”. When sitting down to family dinner,  turn off your phone too.  Go for a family walk and leave your phone off.  If you bring it along in case of an emergency, point out to your child that it has been turned off and put away because family time is a priority.

The reality is that we are living in an technologically sophisticated world and while some parents want to go the way of no screen time at all, that may not be a realistic way to prepare our children for the world in which they live. Increasingly, technology is becoming a part of their lives. The best way to raise awareness and understanding about screen time is to model how to use technology in a healthy and balanced way.

Jennifer Anstiss

Jennifer Anstiss holds a Masters of Education in Literacy from Mount Saint Vincent University, specializing in the Early Intervention and Prevention of Learning Disabilites. She is also an active member of the Ontario College of Teachers. She has been trained in the delivery of Direct Instruction Programs and is a Certified Fast ForWord Practitioner. Jennifer's field experiences include over 15 years of private clinical practice and 10 years of Special Education Teaching for both the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board and Peel District School Board. She specializes in the design and implementation of remedial programs for students with Learning Disabilities and Attentional Issues within both public and private settings. Jennifer gives presentations to parents, professionals and community groups.

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