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What do we really know about kids’ mental health and screen time?

What do we really know about kids’ mental health and screen time?

Nowadays we are more connected than we’ve ever been. Smartphones, laptops and tablets are a big part of our daily life, and they become a big part of the life of our children too. The question for parents is always the same: What is the impact of screen time on children? And how much screen time is too much? And is there a difference between time spent watching cartoons, talking on a video call with their grandparents or playing video games?

Screens provide instant gratification, and it turns out that both children and adults alike really enjoy it.

Recent studies seem to agree on the necessity to limit screen time for toddlers and young children. One study led by University of Calgary psychologist Sheri Madigan, PhD, found that more time per week spent on screens at ages 24 months and 36 months was linked with poorer performance on screening tests for behavioral, cognitive and social development.


Is screen time all the same?

Screen time can have very different meanings, from passively watching a cartoon on TV to being on a video call with grandparents. Not all screen time is the same and it is important to make distinctions. Children often consume media in a passive way, and that is what can be detrimental. “Very young children are confused by the dual nature of video and pictures. 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,” says Georgene Troseth, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University.
This is key in understanding that some screen time can be more beneficial than other, and being read a story remotely or watching shows whilst engaging with our children has not the same effects as having them sitting in front of the tv for many hours.


Screen time and mental health in children

Too much screen time might also not be beneficial when it comes to children’s mental health. The National Institute of Health (NIH) has found connections between the use of screens and the mental well-being of kids and teens. In their research it is highlighted how giving children more than 1 hour of daily screen time was associated with lower psychological health, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks.

During the research, non-users and low users of screens generally did not differ in well-being. The association between screen time and lower psychological well-being was also greater among adolescents than younger children.

Victoria L. Dunckley, a child’s psychiatrist, also talks about how too much electronic stimulation can throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track. She even suggests an “electronics fast” or “digital detox” when children are affected by mood dysregulations.


How do I get my kids off the screen?

Trying to “detox” children from screens might be easier said than done. The American Academy of Pediatrics set out updated media guidelines based on the latest research. Some key points put emphasis on not using screen time as a babysitter or as a way to calm children. It is also important to set boundaries and a routine and stick to it. For example you can allow screen time only for some time in the morning, or completely rule it off during meals and before bed.

Another key aspect is to let kids be bored. You can help by getting them started with a toy, a creative project, a set-up for a story to take place, a pretend-play situation. Then step out of the picture and allow them to understand how to come up with new ideas and play environments. Open-ended and screen-free toys like Cody Block are an exceptional tool for this, as they can always be used by the child in different ways.


In sum, there might be some benefits associated with screen time, but the best way for kids to experience healthy screen time is to enjoy it with other humans. Always value watching a movie together, collaborating with him on a STEM project, or playing a game with the family, but remember to set some limits and encourage different activities that can help improve their mental well-being.