Screen Time and Kids' Health: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Uncovering the truth about the negative effects of screen time on kids’ health

I grew up in the eighties and nineties. Things were very different then. There was no reason for parents to worry about screen time and or its effects on kids’ health.

There were no mobile phones. And there were no laptops.

We spent our days playing make-believe for the most part. A walkie-talkie was mind-bending and futuristic.

When we were lucky, we’d head to Blockbusters to pick up the next sequel of Back to the Future.

80's style shoes and tape recorder.

There was just one TV with three TV channels. And we were deliriously happy.

But if we wanted some real information, then it was a case of catching the Encyclopedia salesman. For a hefty price, you could sign up to have the volumes delivered alphabetically over thirty weeks or so.

Kids these days would consider this childhood to be almost Neanderthal. But I’m forty, not eighty years old.

The internet has very quickly changed our lives dramatically. Kids these days cannot imagine a world with mobiles, tablets, laptops, TVs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouT ube, and Whatsapp.

Most kids would be lost without their mobile to interact on social media. 

As parents, it’s so easy to rely on TVs, tablets, computers, and mobile phones to entertain our kids. After a busy school day, after a day out, on a leisurely Sunday afternoon – it’s very natural just to sit the kids in front of a Disney movie – and get on with the housework and cooking.

TV and computer games can be of benefit for kids of all ages above one, but there are also government health warnings that suggest serious limits on screen time.

Just like other recommendations, including fresh fruit and vegetable consumption, American families are not the best at taking advice. Sorry, it’s the truth.

How long do kids spend in front of the screen?

63% of American kids spend at least 2 hours a day looking at a screen. 

If it were just 2 hours that kids were using their devices for, then the subject would probably be less debated.

An interesting study done each year is Children Connect. They have collated startling proof of how the internet and the digital age has affected the lives and routines of kids today compared to twenty years ago.

The British study detailed that in 1995 kids aged 5-10 were watching TV for around 2 ½ hours daily. But in 2015, this age group now spent 4 ½ hours looking at a screen. And for teenage girls, the 3 ½ hours of TV time in 1995 had increased to 6 ½ hours of screen time. 

So what’s the advice?

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization have both given parent’s advice about screen time.

The AAP recommends that children aged 2 to 5 have no more than one hour of screen time daily. They also suggest a limit of 2 hours for older children so that physical activity, social interaction, and sleep are prioritized over screen time.

The WHO agrees that young children aged from 2 to 4 should also limit screen time to one hour.   

Kids in the US aged 8-18 are flouting this recommendation and then some. American teenagers average over 7 hours daily, which is a shocking statistic!

This is only 4 hours less than adults who view a screen full-time for their jobs.   

Reducing screen time takes effort and commitment. But why should parents make an effort to encourage other activities?

What’s wrong with screentime?

Too much screen time can lead to many adverse effects for children. But there are still many myths surrounding the dangers of screentime.

Watching TV won’t damage your child’s eyes. And there has yet to be a positive correlation linking video games to aggressive behavior. Similarly, increased screen time has not been linked to poorer academic performance in older children.

However, there are several reasons you should limit screen time.

Slowed early development

Several studies, such as that conducted by Madigan, have found that increased screen time slows the memory, attention, and language skills of children under five. It’s thought that slower development is due to the missed opportunity to learn faster away from the screen.

Obesity and diabetes

cartoon of teenager eating and watching tv

An increase in a sedentary activity such as watching TV and gaming is never going pan out well in terms of health. As screen time has increased, children’s obesity rates have risen sharply.

Because screen time is linked to obesity, it has also been directly linked to high blood pressure and diabetes in children.

Mental Health

An increase in screen time has also been linked to both depressive and suicidal symptoms. Studies have shown that teenagers who had used devices for more than five hours per day were far more likely to attempt suicide than those who limited screen time to less than an hour per day.

It puts them in danger

It doesn’t matter how well you kid-proof your media, kids are now subjected to cyberbullying as almost a given by classmates. And determined pedophiles will always find a way to try to chat with children and groom them online.

The only way to protect from this is to have a close relationship with your child. Encourage them regularly to tell you when something is wrong and to stay involved in their online activities.

bullied child, a negative effect of screen time and kids' health

It makes kids tired

Kids need lots of sleep. That’s why you send them to bed early.

But studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between screen time and kids’ health with respect to not getting enough quality sleep. It makes perfect sense as there are only so many hours in the day.

What’s right with screen time?

The main problem with screen time is it’s time spent when your child could have been doing something that would be more beneficial for them. These things include physical activity, interacting socially with peers, playing, or sleeping.

However, there are several positive effects in allowing your kids to watch TV, use computers, and play games.


Playing games that use controls and joysticks can help to improve your child’s general motor skills as well as hand and eye coordination.

kids enjoying playing video games. A positive effect of screen time and kids' health

Stress Relief

You might choose a glass of wine and a favorite vlog, your kids after a school day endlessly aimed at learning all day long, also need to unwind. The different kinds of thinking involved in a video game can be a very enjoyable stress-relieving activity for a half-hour or an hour.

Makes Learning Fun

When’s the last day you had at work when you had to learn all day long? If you have been on a recent course at work, you’ll notice it was split up with regular breaks.

Everything was in bite-sized chunks. Possibly with a change of vibe and interaction to aid the transfer of information and skills.

In the corporate world, we are aware of how little information can be successfully taken in by most people. So courses are designed to be in tiny chunks.

Kids get one grueling hour-long lesson after another all day long every day. So to have the learning turned into an online game can be a real boost, especially for underperforming students.

Vital for Knowledge

The internet allows your child to ask questions about life and the world they live in and get instant knowledge. The benefits of this are enormous and often overlooked by the anti-screen time crowd.

I’m still blown away by it even though kids take their fountain of knowledge for granted. I’m always looking for answers.

And the fact that kids have so much information at their fingertips means they have the potential to be way smarter and more successful than us!

It’s a digital age

Let’s consider the facts. While screen time for kids is way over the recommendations it is nowhere close to the 11 daily hours that American adults spend in front of a screen.

Let’s assume that the average American sleeps 8 hours a day and gets ready for work and commutes; then, this leaves but a few hours a day that Americans are not glued to a screen.

Kids will likely spend even more than this amount of time when they are adults.  So, getting them used to the internet, and how it works makes sense when they will probably work as coders, programmers, Youtubers, digital marketers, and media analysts. 

Children can be starting their careers

There are plenty of kids that far from messing about with video games and are using their screen time to plot world domination. Or, at the very least, starting a useful career and online business.

Many kids are already viable and skilled workers. Examples include learning Adobe Photoshop to design, coding languages to create websites and solve complex problems.

Learning social media and marketing strategies has allowed many teenagers to become top earners!

child coding

So, it’s a case of knowing what your child is doing. If they are busy learning PHP and java, then this could be one of those rare occasions when screen time is more beneficial than physical activity.

Try to agree a maximum amount of time spent on that activity daily. And make sure they are not coding at midnight.

With many touting the benefits of screen time and our busy lives, it can be tough to find that sweet spot, which is beneficial for kids but not detrimental.

Exposing kids to the internet is a tough call. The internet is a truly fantastic part of our lives now.

It’s neither realistic or beneficial for kids to avoid screen time totally. A child that has had no screen time would be hopelessly unprepared for their adulthood in this digital age.

So, it’s a case of teaching kids the basics of computers and the internet and teaching them to be gentle and careful with IT equipment. Make sure you remove the dangers for them by using the safest kid-safe settings available.

It still won’t be easy being the bad cop when it comes to the internet and mobile devices. Here are some ideas to help you strike a balance with screen time with your kids:

  • Plan to watch an educational show with your kids as part of your day. Tune into educational programs such as Sesame Street and watch together to help your child learn and have fun together.
  • Plan to watch a movie together that everyone has chosen.
  • Plan a part of the day when the kids are allowed to watch video games, but keep the games out of your child’s bedroom. (Games can improve your child’s analytical and critical thinking skills, as well as their motor skills. However, games are addictive, and homework still needs to be done. If you allow your kids the reward of an hour of video games after their homework is done, then there is more chance your kid will spend time working out how to code video games, rather than excessively trying to get to the next game level.) 
  • Introduce rules such as no phones at the dinner table.
  • Ensure that your kids have lots of other toys to play with, such as board games, action figures, coloring books, building blocks, dolls, paint, and costumes. Make sure these toys are readily accessible, therefore preempting the use of digital devices.
  • Set times for when screen time is allowed.
  • You can use TV and screen time as a reward for physical activity and behavioral interventions such as setting goals and developing schedules for screen time.

The takeaway here is that it’s important to acknowledge the negative correlation between screen time and kids’ health. You can do this and still acknowledge the benefits that screen time can have!

It’s all about striking a balance!

So, there you have it: The good, the bad, and the ugly!

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