Screen Time for Young Kids: What Does the Research Say?

For most iGen kids, screen time is the coin of the realm— and don’t their parents know it! Screen time is used to incentivize (“If you use the potty, you can watch a cartoon!”) as well as to punish (“Keep up that behavior and you’ll lose screen time for a week!”). And while most parents have used it to gain a few minutes of peace at one time or another to complete a task or regroup after a long day at work, they know that they should put limits on screen time to keep their kids safe and healthy.

But how much screen time is too much? When is it appropriate to allow access to screens?

Are there signs we should look for to determine if our child might be addicted to screens, and is quality as important a variable as quantity?

It can be overwhelming. Fortunately,  there’s some good research available which can shed light and provide some clarity around this issue.  

How Much Screen Time Should I Give My Kids?

The Basics

Because studies suggest too much screen time can lead to negative cognitive, behavioral and physiological consequences, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids between the ages of 2 and 5 use screens for no more than one hour per day (not including time spent video chatting with friends or family).

The Details

The period between birth and three years of age is often referred to as the critical period because the brain is particularly sensitive to and requires specific stimuli from the outside environment for optimal development of neural networks that form the permanent foundation for all future brain function.

The data suggests that children who become dependent upon tablets and smartphones for stimulation during these early stages can unintentionally cause damage to their still-developing brains, which are designed to grow in response to the real-world stimuli that screens cannot provide. So when a child spends too much time looking at an iPad or smartphone, her development can become stunted.  

When Is Screen Time Best/Worst?

The Basics

The research suggests you should eliminate screens at bedtime. One study conducted by researchers at Penn State College of Medicine concluded that “Using any device at bedtime was associated with a statistically significant increased use of multiple forms of technology at bedtime and use in the middle of the night, reducing sleep quantity and quality.”

The Details

Screen use at bedtime provides a physiological and psychological stimulation that can adversely affect sleep.

Not only do electronic devices emit a short-wavelength, artificial blue light that short circuits the body’s natural circadian rhythm, and inhibits release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, but looking at digital content on a smartphone or iPad also promotes alertness and provides psychological stimuli that makes it harder to fall asleep. REM sleep is delayed, reducing the total amount of REM sleep in a night, which then compromises alertness and cognitive function in the morning. Over time, this can result in a chronic sleep deficiency with negative cognitive and overall health consequences.

How Do I Know If My Child Is Addicted?

The Basics

A child displaying trouble unplugging, or a showing consistent willingness to forego physical or social activity in favor of screen time, may be strong indicators of addiction to screen time. But according to one study, you should be taking a more holistic approach to assessing whether your child has a problem.

The Details

According to researchers at the University of Michigan, “how children use the devices, not how much time they spend on them, is the strongest predictor of emotional or social problems connected with screen addiction…there is more to it than number of hours. What matters most is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity.”

For children over the age of three, healthy screen limits may not be just about setting hourly caps, but may also require us to be mindful of our child’s overall emotional disposition and engagement.

If, for example, one child enjoys more actual time on a device than another, but has not lost interest in other activities, remains engaged in family and social activity and does not become agitated when not allowed access to media, she may not be in danger of becoming addicted.

An ever-changing, increasingly sophisticated media landscape with more and more options for creating and enjoying digital content is just a fact of life for the Internet Generation. The good news is that there are a plethora of excellent resources for parents who want to educate themselves on recommended guidelines for screen time. Parents should also know they play an important role in helping children navigate the digital world, and in modeling healthy screen behaviors for them.


If you’re looking for a dynamic learning environment filled with real world, brain-developing stimulation for your child, come tour one of ABC’s & 123’s Learning Centers today!