How Screen Time Affects Kids of Different Ages
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How Screen Time Affects Kids of Different Ages

Exposure to screens affects kids differently at each stage of their physical and mental development.

Determining how much screen time is healthy for your kids’ will depend on what stage of development they’re in.

It’s the middle of the week after work and you’re in the grocery store. Your 3-year-old is melting down, but you need groceries for dinner. So, you guiltily hand over your phone and turn on their favorite cat-centric YouTube channel. The crying immediately stops and the shopping trip continues in peace. There’s some version of this scenario for parents with kids in every age group.

Whether your kids are preschool or high school age, there’s bound to be a day when the screen time rules fall by the wayside. You’re not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2017, 48 percent of parents said that regulating their kids’ screen time is a constant battle.

One thing that might help you stand firm is knowing the direct impact extra screen time will have on your kids at the stage of development they’re currently in.

Screen Time Effects on Preschoolers

For parents of preschoolers, it can be hard to compete with educational apps, games, or TV shows. But the truth is, from birth to age 5 especially, those apps cannot compare to IRL interactions.

Engagement with family, friends, and caregivers will teach your kids verbal and nonverbal cues and help them develop motor skills. While screen time, on the other hand, can provide educational merit in some forms, is mostly distracting your kids’ minds.

In order to develop motor skills, preschool kids need to explore movement and discover where their curiosity can take them. Extended exposure to screens creates the opposite effect for preschoolers – screens immobilize them and remove the opportunity to be creative for themselves.

How much screen time is okay for preschoolers

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than an hour of screen time per day for kids this young, and even less from birth until 3 years old. Recent studies published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that extended screen time in kids up to 3 years old resulted in slowed or delayed development.

It might feel like activities as simple as reading a book together or building a house with blocks isn’t as fun as games online or even Daniel the Tiger. But, the more face-to-face interactions you can create for your young kids, the more they will absorb and learn.

In a recent article for the American Psychological Association, Vanderbilt University psychologist and Ph.D., Georgene Troseth put it like this: “The basic pattern that has been found in dozens of studies is that children learn better from a person who is with them face-to-face than from a person on a screen, even if it’s the exact same person doing the exact same thing,”

If you are allowing your toddler to watch a show or video on a screen, experts say it’s better for development and recollection for parents to watch alongside and interact with them throughout.

Screen Time Effects on Kids Ages 6+

While kids in this age bracket are capable of gleaning more educational benefits from screens than preschoolers, it’s still a time to include hard limits on their media use. This is also a good time to start to develop healthy habits around screen time for their future by having conversations with your kids about what apps are okay and what might be off the table—like social media, video games, etc.

Not all screen time is created equally. Some screen-based content has more positive effects than others. For instance, most video games are not creating the same kind of mental engagement as reading a school assignment or learning vocabulary words via an app. The difference is how your kids engage with the content on-screen and whether or not there are beneficial qualities to the content rather than just mindless entertainment.

When kids are in this stage of development—and this rings true into their teenage years too—they need a balance of activities. One hour of physical activity each day, combined with sleeping eight to ten hours a day and limiting screen time to less than two hours a day recreationally will have a positive effect on their mental health and cognition.

How much screen time is okay for ages 6+

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released several reports on the effects of digital media on kids. One of the lead authors of the Children and Adolescents and Digital Media Technical Report, Dr. Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, tells CNN that parents should focus on committing time to the other important activities in the day and make screen time the last priority. “For healthy kids, an average day includes school, homework time, at least one hour of physical activity, social contact, and sleep—which is anywhere from eight to 12 hours for kids,” said Chassiakos. "Whatever's left over can be screen time."

After preschool, researchers are hesitant to make direct claims about the number of hours parents should limit their kids’ screen time to. It’s up to your discretion. What is clear is that once kids begin to show signs of dependency forming, for instance, irritation when screens are taken away, you should take note. In order to avoid dependency disorders and addiction, it will be important to keep a close eye on changes in your kids’ behavior in connection to the amount of screen time they’re allowed and make adjustments accordingly.

Screen Time Effects on Tweens and Teens

If you have a teenager, we don’t need to explain how hard it is to limit their access to screens. In 2019, our friends at Common Sense Media reported that tweens are using screens around 4 hours and 45 minutes per day while teens are using them for around 7 hours and 20 minutes per day. And that was before a pandemic hit and online learning became critical.

In a recent study by The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, tweens who use screens excessively scored lower on cognitive assessments. Overuse combined with too little sleep has also been associated with heightened impulsive behavior at this age.

Because of sheer exposure and ease of access to screens, teens and tween are the most susceptible to screen time addiction, dependency, and cyberbullying. Keep a watchful eye on their usage and utilize tools like Circle Time Limits to limit access to sites and platforms where you see overuse happening.

Parental controls allow you to limit access to phones and other mobile devices at an age when your kids are savvy enough to bypass other (often laughable) restrictions like “being grounded” from their phones or devices.

How much screen time is okay for tweens and teenagers

Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule for parents to follow on how long tweens and teens should be on screens each day. While there is always new research coming out, there have been recent links made to tween and teens who have more than 2 hours of TV screen time per day and depressive symptoms and obesity.

That said, the resounding opinion of researchers, pediatricians, and psychologists alike is that the kind of media being consumed on screens matters. If your kids are going to be on screens, steer them towards engaging, positive media.

The best possible solution for avoiding too much screen time is to have open conversations with your teens about boundaries and to create a balanced environment that provides a mix of physical activity, IRL interactions, education, and last on the list—screens.

Circle Can Help Balance Screen Time

Now that you’re armed with knowledge about how much screen time is okay for your kids, you can feel more empowered to stand firm when you need to say no.

Whether you have a preschooler or a teenager, it’s important to be able to set custom Filters on your kids’ devices for appropriate content by age and apply those filters to social media, videos, and games for apps and websites.

When you simply need to create an incentive to put the devices down, set Time Limits on sites or platforms, or designate Off Time for the family to be together.

You don’t have to fight the screen time battle alone. Circle Parental Controls has your back.

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