Advice for Parents

Advice for Parents

My ideas about screen parenting.

Children’s screen time is one of those issues that everyone seems to have an opinion on, and society can put a lot of pressure on parents to conform to societal norms and expectations around what is appropriate. And of course, parents can put a lot of pressure on themselves and worry that they could be managing their children’s screen time better. Many parents I have spoken to while doing my research on screen time have appreciated learning more about the potential effects of screen time on children’s development and asked for my opinion on what parents should be doing to optimise the benefits and minimise the risk of harmful effects for their children. (Okay, they didn’t word it quite like that, but that is what they meant.) So here I would like to share my ideas on some of the common questions parents have about children’s screen time. I mainly have preschool children’s screen time in mind as I answer these questions, but most of the ideas will apply to older children too.

Is screen time harmful for preschool children?

This is a big question – does the amount of screen time matter? Screen time is not harmful in and of itself, but in certain circumstances, it appears to be associated with poorer developmental outcomes. In my research, I didn’t find that preschool children having higher screen time (when they were using screens themselves) was associated with poorer executive functions or vocabulary. However, I did find that having screen media going in the background for long periods of time may increase the risk of poorer executive functions, which may make it more difficult for children to manage their behaviour, think flexibly and stay focused on tasks.

The screen media landscape has changed a lot since much of the research into the effects of screen time has been carried out, but there is a growing body of recent research linking higher levels of screen time (including new technologies) to a range of poorer developmental outcomes. These include language, behavioural problems, shorter sleep duration and poor vision. Although I agree with most researchers in the field that the content and context of screen media use is a critical consideration, I would be wary of dismissing very high levels of screen time as a concern. For instance, there is evidence linking higher screen time levels with poorer eyesight – this seems like a fairly logical connection and also it is hard to see how adjusting the content or context of screen use could make a difference for something physiological like vision.

However, as I will outline below, screen use has a lot of potential benefits for preschool children, and there is a lot that parents can do to help make sure that screens have a positive impact for their child. 

How much screen time should preschool children have?

In 2017 the Ministry of Health released guidelines for New Zealand (NZ) parents on activities for children aged up to five years of age. The development of the new guidelines was informed by an extensive commissioned review which examined the Ministry of Health’s previous physical activity guidelines and resources and the current literature relating physical activity, sleep, screen time and sedentary behaviour to health outcomes for children aged under five. The guidelines recommended that children aged two years and under should be discouraged from screen time, children aged two to five years should have less than one hour of screen time per day, and parents should “avoid having the TV playing in the background”. I think the guidelines are well-informed and about right for very young children.

However, I think it is important to remember that the guidelines are intended as exactly that – a guide as to how much screen time may be appropriate. The media landscape preschool children engage with today is constantly changing as newer screen technologies and apps are introduced, and in my opinion, opportunities for higher quality screen time are increasing.

In fact, one researcher has suggested that since interactive digital technologies have many features that are similar to traditional toys (e.g., tailorable to the child’s learning needs, interactive, portable, can promote joint attention with others), they may provide some of the same benefits of playing with normal toys. Plus well-designed educational programming such as Sesame Street and Blues Clues can have lasting benefits for children’s learning. 

I think there is definitely scope for having a bit more than an hour of screen time if it is is high quality, and if parents are involved with their child’s screen activities. For instance, parent and child reading an e-book together may technically be counted as screen time but could be just as beneficial to the child’s learning as reading a print book.

What can parents do to keep their preschool children’s screen time down?

When children are very young, parents are able to control their children’s screen time much more easily than when they are older, and it is a good time to establish expectations around screen use, screen time and the role screen media are going to play in family interactions. In my research, I have identified some “media parenting practices” that can help keep screen time down:

1) According to my research, the most important thing that parents can do to keep their preschool children’s screen time down was avoid having the TV going in their child’s vicinity for long periods of time. If the child has what is called a “heavy TV environment”, they can easily end up with high levels of screen time. Even if they are not actually watching the TV, several adverse effects are linked to background TV. Our own study found that higher levels of environmental TV increased the risk of poorer executive functions, which may make it more difficult for children to manage their behaviour, think flexibly and stay focused on tasks.

2) Have rules about the amount of screen time children are allowed helps keep screen time down. Very young children may not be able to follow the rules without help, but having rules and expectations can help them to understand that their screen time is not unlimited. It might also help parents of preschoolers to have a rough gauge in their head of how much screen time is appropriate for their child. It doesn’t have to be totally regimented –  e.g., if your child is sick, if you are on a long journey, or if we are in lockdown (as Auckland is right now), then you may decide to relax your screen time rules.

3) Try to avoid leaving your preschool child to use screens unattended. If you aim to always co-use screens with your child, their screen time is limited by how much time you choose to spend using screens with them. Parents’ interactions with their preschool children during screen use are also important to help them understand the content and promote learning.

4) Avoid letting your child watch programmes aimed at adults and older members of the household. Watching adult-directed content seems to increase children’s screen time, probably because they watch their own programmes and then watch some programming other household members watch as well.

5) Avoid TV meals for your child. Not only does allowing your child to eat meals in front of TV seem to increase their total screen time, but our research also found that this was associated with poorer executive functions.

6) Higher levels of reading to your child may reduce screen time. We found that children whose parents read to them daily had lower screen time than children whose parents read to them less frequently. Plus reading to your child has lots of benefits, including promoting language and literacy, and also it’s a nice way for them to relax. (By the way, I would count reading an e-book as reading to the child, and not include it in their screen time total.)

Can screen time be good for my preschool child?

As newer touchscreen technologies and apps are relatively new (compared to TV, which is well-researched) it will take a while to build up a good understanding of how they may affect children. Here, I will share what I found out when reviewing the literature for my doctoral thesis.

There are benefits for children’s creativity, such as being able to create art, music, take photos of their surroundings. Research shows that children can benefit from keeping in touch with distant friends and family via online chat. Also, children’s sense of autonomy can be promoted, if they can have opportunities to do things for themselves, e.g., taking a photo and sending it to someone, “reading” an e-book instead of having E-book read to them by an adult, collecting information via recordings and photos and retrieving them later. 

E-books have been shown to be beneficial for early literacy skills, for instance, vocabulary. A good quality e-book will have supports for children’s reading and scaffold their understanding, but not have a whole lot of unnecessary features that can distract the child from the story line.

There is a lot of research showing that educational TV programmes such as Sesame Street and Blues Clues can promote literacy, numeracy, language and pro-social behaviours in preschool children. Although it is early days, there is also a growing body of research to suggest that well-designed educational apps can also promote these skills. As the quality of the apps can vary, I would suggest looking into the educational apps that have the best reviews, or are highly rated by experts, such as educators. It would be good to aim for a bit of a mix, maybe find different apps that focus on literacy, numeracy, and science (e.g., fun science for children like animals in different habitats, etc.). I think it is fine to have programming that is simply for fun or relaxing, as this is beneficial too.

The role of parents in helping their children benefit from screen use cannot be emphasised enough. Firstly, parents can scaffold their children’s understanding and learning from media in different ways, e.g. by drawing their attention to key information, asking questions, discussing ideas, and linking what is happening on-screen to children’s prior knowledge and own experiences. Secondly, co-using screens with your preschool child as much as possible allows you to monitor what your child encounters or does onscreen, and take action to reduce the risk of harm if needed.