Screen time is time spent watching screens. This includes using computers, watching TV or videos, playing computer games and using smartphones or tablets. There is evidence that too much screen time can harm your child’s development.
Knowing the risks helps you to look after your child in a screen-filled world.
Why worry about screen time?
The World Health Organization says that to grow up healthy, children need to sit less and play more. Sitting for a long time can lead to unhealthy behaviours that last throughout a child’s life, and can cause health problems such as obesity and other long lasting diseases.
Children who spend too much time in front of screens, especially by themselves, can develop language delays, shorter attention spans and find it harder to make decisions. They are less likely to be ready for school. That’s because they aren’t interacting with adults like they need to. Activities like reading, telling stories and doing puzzles are good for a child’s development, even if they are sitting down.
High screen time can result in physical problems like sore eyes, headaches and tiredness, disturbed sleep patterns, especially if they look at screens close to bedtime, and a stiff neck and spine.
The Australian Government therefore recommends:
- no sedentary (sitting) screen time for children under 2 (although it’s fine for small children to be involved when the family chats via video link because it’s a social experience)
- children aged 2 to 5 should have less than 1 hour sedentary screen time in total throughout the day — preferably watching with an adult
- children aged 5 to 17 years are recommended to limit recreational screen time to 2 hours or less a day, and preferably with positive social interactions and experiences
Alternative ways to occupy your child
There are lots of great ways to entertain your child other than using the TV or a tablet as a child minder.
- let babies play on the floor on a rug
- play with them, talk to them
- take your child’s favourite toy when visiting friends
- ask your child to help pack up their toys
- take storybooks and sing rhymes together on a trip
- invite your child’s friend to the café so they can have fun ‘reading the menu’
- take paper and crayons or colouring-in books when you go out
- get some physical activity every day. Walk in the neighbourhood, go to a park or the beach, run, jump, skip or ride in the backyard or the park
- walk instead of driving
- balance screen time with lots of activity, indoor play, craft activities
Getting the best out of screen time
Screens are a part of everybody’s life these days. After age 2, some limited screen time is OK as long as they are physically active (at least 3 hours a day). It’s a good idea to balance screen time with other aspects of your child’s life by setting rules about when and where they can look at screens. It’s especially important to keep screens out of children’s bedrooms at night.
Make sure you limit the amount of time your child is watching a screen. When they stop, get them to do something physical or go outside to play. Encourage them to use their imaginations and to play with friends, as these things are important for their development.
It’s also important to set a good example. Babies and young children learn habits from you – so you can model healthy screen use by switching off your phone during meals, doing plenty of physical activity outdoors, turning off the TV when you’re not watching it, and giving your child your full attention rather than checking your phone.
Real-life experiences are the most valuable for young children. No screen can substitute for a cuddle, a chat, a story or having fun with their favourite people.
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Last reviewed: May 2021