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Experts say parents can reduce the effects of screen time by choosing educational programs and watching with children whenever possible. Getty Images
  • Experts say too much screen time can hamper a young child’s language development skills.
  • They note it has become more difficult for parents to monitor screen time due to the accessibility of electronic devices.
  • They add it might be particularly difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, when families are spending a lot of time at home.
  • Experts say parents can help ease the problem by setting a good example themselves with screen time and watching programs with children whenever possible.

In these times of COVID-19, parents may be struggling with the question of children and electronic screen time.

How much is too much? What, if anything, can be considered “good” screen time?

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics that was completed before lockdown life began looked at dozens of studies on hundreds of children.

The researchers concluded that overuse of media screens does hinder language development in children.

But there are nuances.

The researchers also concluded that screen time with parental interaction and careful consideration for educational value could help with child language development.

The study falls in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ screen time guidelines, which call for no screen time for children 2 years and under, as well as limiting screen time for children from 2 to 5 years of age to 1 hour of educational programming a day.

Sheri Madigan, PhD, clinical psychologist and an assistant professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, and a lead author of the study, told Healthline that the new research does find that co-watching and selective educational content “may offset the risk.”

However, she notes the word “may” is key here.

She points out that 95 percent of 3-year-olds exceed the suggested guidelines, so co-viewing with parents “needs to be on the incline, not the decline.”

That’s because interaction and selective programing does increase the chances of language development. Done right, Madigan says, such viewing practices can even help.

“In the age of COVID-19, it’s a big ask to ask parents to sit down and watch a show with a child,” she said. “What if you have to make dinner? But you can turn on the TV right by you and say to your child things like, ‘That’s Elmo. What color is he? Red!’ It’s interaction. It’s a help.”

Screens are moving out of the family room and into hands of children.

According to Common Sense Media, 42 percent of children under 8 own their own smartphone. That’s up from 7 percent just 4 years ago.

That makes it even more of a challenge for parents to keep tabs on time and be sure interaction is a part of viewing.

“There is one piece of science that is the biggest predictor for success in language, and that’s talking to your children,” said Craig Selinger, MS, CCC-SLP, a speech language therapist and learning specialist in Brooklyn, New York.

“So to improve an IQ in a child 0 to 36 months old, turn off all the technology,” he told Healthline.

Selinger sees even more risk than slower language development in kids who are exposed to lots of screen time.

“It’s a drug,” he said, “and you’re starting that drug addiction early.”

What’s a busy parent to do, particularly with so many working from home and without child care?

Rather than go for easier, experts say, reach for better.

“Even though we’ve radically restructured the family life for the time being, that does not mean the process of brain development has changed at all,” said Gloria DeGaetano, founder and CEO of the Parent Coaching Institute in Washington.

Children left to watch a screen, she says, don’t build autonomy or imagination around language that way.

Reading books or simply talking back and forth, she says, is the best thing for language.

“Listening to a story being read and engaging with it (can you point to the bunny?) and listening to people and engaging in conversation is good,” DeGaetano told Healthline.

But what if you want to entertain your child with a screen?

“OK, so let’s say they want to see ‘Frozen,’” DeGaetano said. “If you break it up and do it for 20 minutes a day and then get up and play ‘Frozen’ or sing the songs, and ask them what they think will happen next? That’s a better experience that will have a better outcome.”

So, what’s a busy parent in a world tethered to screens to do?

Be a positive example

“Parents need to be mindful of their own screen time in front of kids,” said LeAnna Heinrich, MS, CCC-SLP, a school-based speech-language pathologist in Northern California.

“Children model their parents,” she told Healthline.

Heinrich suggests telling your children what you’re doing when on a screen (looking up a recipe, uploading a resume, etc.).

“Each one of these moments is a chance to talk,” she notes.

Heinrich suggests referencing a family media plan as well as the Identify the Signs campaign.

“Parents need to practice what they preach,” added Thomas Kersting, a psychotherapist and expert on how screen time affects children, and author of “Disconnected,” coming out in August.

“Adults spend more than 6 to 8 hours each day on a screen,” he told Healthline. “Parents should work on that.”

Co-view when you must view

“Children need to hear the language before using the language,” DeGaetano said.

The more interactive that can be, the better, she says.

So, if you’re going to allow a child screen time, join them and talk about it as you watch together.

Madigan says this latest study shows this behavior helps, and while no or limited screen time is best, this kind of interaction can make things better.

“There is no better way to build language than face-to-face,” Kersting said. “That’s how children get the nuances and really learn to use it.”

Watching in tandem and discussing is one way to make screen viewing less of a negative impact, he says.

Madigan also suggests parents choose wisely when finding a program for children to view.

“Some parents think all TV can be educational, but that’s not the case,” she said. “The pace should be appropriate, and the content developed by educational experts.”

Madigan suggests this Common Sense Media resource for parents choosing content.

Think long term

While the new study focused on young children and language development, experts say parents should think long term about screen time implications.

In particular, young male adults.

“I call them the ‘lost boys,’” Kersting said. “We are seeing a real ‘failure to launch’ situation. They sit in their room playing video games all hours and just sink into defiant behavior and even depression.”

And many kids develop a dependence to their devices and screens, which can be a hard habit to break.

“The earlier you set limits, the better,” Kersting said.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

“Do your best and don’t beat yourself up,” Heinrich said.

And when you just want to just give in?

“Reflect on your own childhood, and think about what your life would be like if you had a tablet at 2 and a cellphone at 4. Think about what you would have missed out on,” he said.

DeGaetano suggests parents begin to think of using screens “as a tool, not a tether.” That will help them think more about just turning to it for help, and put that tool into use only when you can watch it closely.

In the end, Madigan says, she and her co-authors hope the study reminds parents, even in this time, to limit screen time and focus on what time they do allow.

“Don’t feel guilty,” she said. “Instead, choose to be mindful.”