A recent study by Canadian researchers coupled with new guidelines issued by the Word Health Organization have reignited the debate about how much, if any, screen time parents should allow young children.
The emerging consensus? Not much.
Conducted by a dozen researchers from medical schools across Canada, the screen time study found that children ages 3 and 5 who spent more than two hours a day watching screens were five times more likely to exhibit inattention problems and over seven times likely to meet the criteria for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than children who spent less than 30 minutes per day on screens.
The study used data from a nationwide survey called the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) study. Researchers examined data from 3,500 children in Canada, and found that children exposed to more screen time at either three or five years old demonstrated “significantly greater behavioral and attention problems at age five.”
Researchers expressed confidence in the validity of their findings, despite the fact that there have been other studies will less dramatic findings.
“The large sample size allowed us to observe associations between screen-time and clinically significant behavioral morbidity while controlling for multiple confounders,” they wrote.
As the study’s results became public, WHO released its guidelines, urging parents of children younger than 5 to limit screen time severely. Children younger than 1 should have no screen time at all, WHO recommended.
The guidelines, however, were aimed at least as much at reducing sedentary behaviors among young children as at screens alone.
“The pattern of overall 24-hour activity is key: replacing prolonged restrained or sedentary screen time with more active play, while making sure young children get enough good-quality sleep,” a press release about the guidelines said. “Quality sedentary time spent in interactive non-screen-based activities with a caregiver, such as reading, storytelling, singing and puzzles, is very important for child development.”
“For 1-year-olds, sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended. For those aged 2 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better.”
WHO’s guidelines met with some criticism. The Washington Post reported:
“Our research has shown that currently there is not strong enough evidence to support the setting of screen time limits,” said Max Davie, Britain’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s Officer for Health Improvement. “The restricted screen time limits suggested by WHO do not seem proportionate to the potential harm,” he said.”
Given the overabundance of articles, studies, and untethered opinions about screen time , what is a parent to do? Our advice is to use common sense. Strictly limiting screen time, especially for the youngest children, is wise parenting.
It’s also important to remember that not all screen time is created equal. There are stimulating, educational, interactive, and collaborative ways to use screens. Conversely, there is a lot of garbage out there, ill-suited to young children and unlikely to do much except distract a child when a parent needs a breather. Try to avoid the latter as often as possible.
Read More: Arguments for Limiting Kids’ Screen Time.