Is too much screen time dangerous for children?

Dr. Aimee E. Ketchum, OTD, OTR/L

Two weeks ago the World Health Organization (WHO) came out with new guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behavior, and sleep for children under the age of five. Among these guidelines, the WHO recommended no screen time at all for children under one year and no more than an hour of screen time per day for children between two and five years.  This recommendation aligns closely with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)'s recommendation of no screen time except video-chats for children under 18 months of age and no more than an hour for children between two and five. As you might imagine, there has been quite a bit of pushback to both of these organizations for taking such a firm stand.

An article in Time Magazine pointed out that "not all screen time is created equal" and some groups are voicing their concerns that the WHO and AAP failed to recognize the potential benefits of digital media for children. Parents are pushing back on social media and blogs, expressing their frustration with these stringent guidelines in today's tech world that our children live in.

As a pediatric occupational therapist and developmental specialist, I have to point out that the AAP and WHO's recommendations are not based on research that shows that screen time is necessarily harmful, but it is based heavily on the research that shows that the absence of physical activity and meaningful human interactions is extremely harmful and detrimental to healthy development. Studies show that prolonged screen time severely inhibits these important habits. The goal of the screen time restrictions is simply to encourage physical activity and human interaction, not to eliminate potentially beneficial screen time.

Let's look a little closer at the rest of the WHO's recommendation, because, although the screen time recommendations got the most press, that was the most understated part of the report. The more significant recommendations can be found in the study in bold.

According to WHO, infants less than one year should be physically active several times a day in a variety of ways, particularly through interactive floor-based play. They should have 30 minutes of tummy time while awake and not be restrained for more than one hour. They should also have 14 to 17 hours of sleep per day. Children who are 1 to 4 years old should have at least 180 minutes of physical activity and 10 to 14 hours of quality sleep per day, depending on their age. The screen time limitation is part of the "how to guide" to make sure this activity and sleep requirements are fulfilled.

It's important to recognize that extended screen time does limit physical activity, human interaction, exploration of the world, and healthy sleep patterns. Of course children are going to see screens from time to time, but if we are conscious and intentional about also encouraging all the good stuff, balance is possible.

While older generations might say "I raised my children without screens and you can too," that was a different world and it is impossible to compare. Today, 95% of families with children under the age of eight give those children smartphones, and 42% of those children have their own tablets. Parents of the new millennium are some of the first who will raise their children with multiple screens in every home and miniature screens in every vehicle, purse and pocket. It is a unique challenge that researchers are still learning the benefits and consequences of.

Let's explore some strategies to replace typical screen time with physical activity, healthy interactions, and sleep. Think about the times of day when your children are most likely to be on screens. Is it while you drive in the car? Perhaps play the License Plate Game on your trip instead.

If you rely on screens to get through errands tantrum-free, try out some different games. Maybe send children on a scavenger hunt or play grocery "I spy" with pictures you print in advance. You can even plan prizes for good behavior.

Maybe you put on an educational TV program while making dinner. Instead, pull up a stool beside you and include your child in the dinner prep. Have them slice bananas with a plastic butter knife - it will make kids feel involved and validated. They can set the table, fold napkins, and draw unique designs onto construction paper placemats.

Is bedtime a time to wind down with Netflix at your house? Reading books to your children instead is great for bonding, learning new vocabulary, and studies show that children who are read to regularly perform better in school.

So instead of focusing on hours of screen time, let's put our energy into fostering physical activity, healthy interactions, and exploration of the world for our children.


Aimee Ketchum is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

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