How much is too much screen time for kids?

Tablets and gadgets are ubiquitous are so easy to use as babysitters. Find out how much is too much screen time for kids.

It is a common sight to see preschoolers watching cartoons and playing games on the iPad or smartphones in Singapore’s food courts and restaurants. It is an efficient way to keep children in their seat so that they can be fed and parents can have their meal in peace. Parents are also usually on their own smartphones. We also always see a whole group of teenagers who are each on their own individual electronic devices.

As Singapore aims to be one of the most connected countries in the world, our children are reaping the benefits. Or are we doing more harm?

A common question on parenting websites is the recommended amount of screen time for kids (TV, computer, smartphone, tablet) recommended for children. The unpopular answer is that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, screen time for kids zero to two years is zero. For children older than two years, total screen time should be less than two hours a day.

To put that into perspective, a typical TV show or cartoon for young children is 15 to 20 minutes long. A typical family eating a meal can spend up to an hour at the table, with the youngest child glued to the smartphone.

Negative side of too much screen time for kids

Screen exposure has been linked to increased risks of attention issues in young children. A study in 2004, reported in the journal Pediatrics looked at over 2000 children who had experienced screen exposure at one year and at three years of age. There was a correlation between screen exposure at these time points and the increased attention issues when they turned seven.

screen time for kids

Our children are being increasingly exposed to violence in the media. It has been linked to increased physiological arousal, aggressive interpretations of events and negative ways of addressing real life situations. It has also desensitized children and adults to violence.

Internet safety is a real issue and children inadvertently get routed to inappropriate websites and images. Cyberbullying is also increasing. Increased screen time has also been linked to increased rates of obesity due to increased sedentary time.

Despite all the negative effects, using screens to be the electronic babysitter is a default position that is widely practiced. As a result, children lose out on practicing conversation with parents, playing with peers and being active on the playground.

This, unsurprisingly, generates concerns about various developmental delays. Speech delay, poor play skills, poor social skills, poor motor skills and others are becoming commonplace.

What can parents do?

Reducing screen time should be a priority. There should not be any TV screens or computers in the bedroom. Smartphones or tablets should be kept by parents at night, as we all know of children who play games nonstop under the blankets.

screen time for kids

Use meal times to talk to your child. For the very young ones, consider using toys, books and other manipulatives to engage them. Take the time to play with children as all children are wired to learn through play.

Consider the ‘old fashioned’ toys that kept us entertained when we were young – jigsaw puzzles, Lego, colouring books, board games, bubbles, balloons. Keep them occupied with outdoor activities, especially as there are more and more free playgrounds and water parks around.

Children’s programmes on television can also be useful as they expose children to songs, early literacy/numeracy and new concepts. Parents do need to supervise the programmes and can further elaborate on the topics by discussing them with their children.

‘I’m Bored!’

One common complaint from children is that they are bored. Many have been so accustomed to the high adrenaline, fast paced action of computer games that they are unused to a slower, more realistic pace of real life.

screen time for kids

It is fine for children to be bored, so do not give in to the complaint. Bored children will figure out an imaginative game or story to explore. Unstructured time is a learning experience that gives a child time to explore.

If there are peers or siblings around, let them have this opportunity to learn to figure out how to play together. Disputes are expected but this is also how they learn to settle conflicts in an acceptable manner. Bored children will also demand more attention from parents to accompany them in their play – so parents, be prepared to put down your own phones.