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Screen time and pre-school children: what you need to know

toddler using a tablet

Most exhausted parents have occasionally plonked a crying toddler in front of a TV or tablet.

It’s understandable: juggling the needs of young children with work commitments and other family demands is tricky. Sometimes you just need to buy yourself a few minutes.

But many parents feel guilty about resorting to digital devices – particularly where pre-schoolers are concerned.

So is screen time a bad thing for pre-school children? Here’s what you need to know.

What the WHO said

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) published guidelines last year about TV, bedtimes and play, it was the screen-time advice that dominated the headlines.

Babies and toddlers should not be left to passively watch TV or other screens was the message.

The report identified the key things needed by a developing child as face-to-face interaction, physical play and set bedtimes – and concluded that too much sedentary behaviour would have a negative effect.

The WHO’s specific advice was that sedentary screen time, including computer games, should not be allowed before a child is two.

The limit for two- to four-year-olds was an hour a day – and less is better.

This supported the popular view promoted in much of the media that screen time is to blame for a range of ills from obesity to mental health problems and educational failure.

But the view that screen time is toxic to health has not been accepted by health experts in the UK.

What the UK child health experts said

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) responded that a lack of scientific evidence makes it impossible to recommend age-appropriate time limits, or to say that all screen time is bad.

One surprising feature of the WHO report is that it made strong recommendations on the basis of what they themselves described as “very low-quality evidence”.

The research consisted mostly of observational studies, reported by parents, and produced mixed results. And to add to the lack of clarity, sedentary behaviour didn’t always distinguish between screen time and time being strapped into pushchairs and high chairs.

So, it’s probably not surprising that the UK experts treated the findings with some caution.

They recognised that technology is an integral part of children’s lives and education and that the risks from screen exposure should not be overstated. And they called for more and better research, focused on newer use of digital media.

Although they found no real evidence for specific health benefits of screen time, they questioned the significance of some of the negative findings.

Max Davie, RCPCH’s officer for health improvement, said that: “Although there are negative associations between screen time and poor mental health, sleep and fitness, we cannot be sure that these links are causal, or if other factors are causing both negative health outcomes and higher screen time.”

In other words, the picture is a complex one.

What do they agree about?

A good balance of physical activity, sleep and a healthy diet are all important goals and it is possible that screens impact children in a wide range of ways.

But the RCPCH were concerned that the WHO guidelines overlook the problems of parents living in cramped housing without outdoor space and coping with other family stress. Parents should not be made to feel guilty when there are many barriers to achieving the ideal.

UK experts agree that “face-to-face social interaction is vital to the development of language and other skills, and screen-based interaction is not an effective substitute for this”.

They also agree that screens should be avoided for an hour before bedtime and that there is evidence of a link between unhealthy eating and screen time.

So how much screen time is too much for a pre-schooler? ­­

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all advice.

Parents should approach screen time – and sleep – based on the child’s individual needs.

The risk to a child’s wellbeing comes when screen time displaces positive activities, such as socialising, good sleep, diet and exercise.

Families should ask these 4 questions: 

  • Is screen time controlled?
  • Does it interfere with what you want to do?
  • Does it interfere with sleep?
  • Are you able to control snacking?

There are plenty of online activities that are not entirely passive and many more that engage a child’s imagination or develop their cognitive skills. And, of course, exploring the digital world doesn’t have to be a solitary activity. Families can play together and learn together.

The key warnings are to ensure screen time doesn’t lead to unhealthy snacking or take over from other, physical or social activities.

Image: goodmoments/stock.adobe.com


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Screen time: everything you need to know

Screen time: why you shouldn’t worry

Screen time and young children: finding a balance