The predictors of screen time at 2 years and 4.5 years

By predictors of screen time I mean the things that are associated with screen time levels and linked to screen time being higher or lower than the amount of screen time children have on average. When research identifies a “modifiable” predictor, i.e., something that parents can do something about, this can be useful if parents think there is a need to reduce their children’s screen time. (I say “reduce” because parents are typically not looking for ways to increase their children’s screen time! I think Covid-19 lockdowns have taken care of that for us – understandably! And as I write this we are in yet another – long – lockdown in Auckland.) My research looked at the predictors of screen time at 2 years and 4.5 years.

Research prior to mine has shown that the decisions parents make about their preschool children’s engagement with screens may influence their total screen time. Except most of the past research focused on TV only, or TV, DVD and video, and as we know, screen time today is not made up just of TV. So our study used a comprehensive measure of screen time that incorporated use of other forms of screen technology that a child might use in a day, including computers, gaming consoles, tablets, iphones, laptops. We also had access to the data from an amazing study, the Growing Up in New Zealand study, which means that we were able to include a lot of variables in our analyses that could also potentially affect screen time. Wherever we could, we included variables that past research had looked at, to build on their results.

The results of both studies emphasised the importance of the home media environment in the amount of screen time young children have. For instance, having household rules about the amount of screen time children can have was associated with lower screen time at 2 years and 4.5 years. Children this age might not always fully understand the rules, and the rules may not always be strictly enforced, but I think they key issue here is for parents to have some limit in their mind of how much screen time they think is appropriate for their child, and use this as their yardstick. It doesn’t have to be exactly what official guidelines are. I like the way that the NZ Ministry of Health refers to their guidelines as just that, guidelines, offering some information that can help you decide screen limits for your children rather than making a proclamation. For what it is worth, I think the NZ guidelines of an hour for preschool children is about right.

At 2 years, always coviewing with your child seems to help keep screen time down. Note that coviewing sometimes doesn’t really seem to make a difference compared to coviewing seldom or not at all – it seems to be that only when parents made a commitment to always coview with their preschool children, screen time is lower. Coviewing is so beneficial for children, not only because they are doing something with their parent that they enjoy, but the involvement of a parent or other adult is needed to help a young child understand and benefit from screen media. (However, I wonder if the reason why screen time is lower if parents ALWAYS  coview is because there is only so much TV programming aimed at 2 year olds that a parent can bear to watch!)

The strongest predictor of screen time for 2-year-olds was the TV environment that the child experiences in the home. If you want to keep your child’s screen time down, having TV going in the background for long periods of time is something to be wary of. We found that children who had TV going in the same room as them for six hours or more on the last weekday had on average nearly 3x the amount of screen time had by other children their age. If the TV was on in the child’s environment for more than an hour (but less than 6 hours), their screen time was about doubled. We found similar results for children at 4.5 years, but the increases were not so pronounced.

For children at 4.5 years, eating meals in front of TV was associated with higher screen time. I know it can be tempting to do this, but the results of one of our other studies suggest eating meals in front of TV linked to poorer executive functions in preschool children. This could be because meal times are normally a time when we teach children rules and norms around meal time behaviour, or table manners. Mealtimes can be an opportunity for children to practise managing their behaviour, and inhibiting less desirable behaviours, such as chewing with their mouths open, playing with their food, all those points of meal etiquette which of course may vary between cultures. However, TV meals may in general be more “casual” and during a TV meal, parents may be watching TV themselves, and not focused on how their child is eating. The more TV meals a child has, the fewer opportunities they may have to practise following rules in a meal-time context, which may put them at a disadvantage in developing executive functions compared to children who never have TV meals. This may be something to consider if TV meals are fairly frequent for your child,

Allowing 2-year-old children to view adult-directed TV content was associated with higher screen time in our research. “Adult-directed” is simply content that is targetted at adults. It could be the news, a soap opera, The Chase (my favourite) – basically anything that was not designed for a preschooler! Although young children are still learning to comprehend the medium of television, there may be some TV or video content aimed at adults that 2-year-old children can actually follow and understand to an extent. In our study, children who did watch adult-directed programming on the last weekday on our study viewed for 39 minutes. Most of these children also watched child-directed TV programming, which probably explains why their screen time was higher than that of children who only watched child-directed TV. Apart from being associated with higher screen time for children, viewing of adult-directed content during early childhood is associated with a range of adverse developmental outcomes, so I think it is best avoided.

We found other significant predictors of screen time, but here I have focused on modifiable predictors, because these can give some practical ideas to parents of preschoolers wanting to reduce their children’s screen time levels. If you are a parent of a preschooler, I hope this is information is useful and informative, especially in these difficult covid times when it is hard not to let the screen time rise. But don’t be too hard on yourselves – if ever there was a time to relax your expectations around screen time a bit, it is now!

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