Screentime - what's the harm?

90% of children start watching TV before the age of two (Christakis, 2009). And therefore the question about whether screentime is harmful for young children hangs over our heads. There has been guidance around this issue from various agencies such as the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) going as far back as 1999, when data around the subject was pretty limited. The theory at this time was that too much television time would be detrimental to children’s language and communication development.

Now, with lifestyles of parents ever busier, the temptation to use screentime as a babysitting tool is even greater. Screens are everywhere – televisions, iPads, smartphones - and many of us probably spend far too much time glued to our screens ourselves, let alone letting our little ones be entertained by them also.

Entertained is an important word here. For, although many APPs and programmes market themselves as educational, there is a strong argument that this is false advertising. And rather soberingly, Christakis (2009) found that, up until that point, there existed no evidence of benefits associated with early infant TV watching.

A more recent policy statement published by the AAP in 2011: Media use by children younger than two included the following:

·     Quality programs are educational for children only if they understand the content and context of the video. Studies consistently find that children under two do not have this understanding.

Their refined guidance at this time stated:

·     Unstructured play time is more valuable for the developing brain than electronic media. Children learn to think creatively, problem solve, and develop reasoning and motor skills at early ages through unstructured, unplugged play. Free play also teaches them how to entertain themselves.

·     Young children learn best from - and need - interaction with humans, not screens.

·     Parents who watch TV or videos with their child may add to the child’s understanding, but children learn more from live presentations than from televised ones.

·     When parents are watching their own programs, this is “background media” for their children. It distracts the parent and decreases parent-child interaction. Its presence may also interfere with a young child’s learning from play and activities.

·     Television viewing around bedtime can cause poor sleep habits and irregular sleep schedules, which can adversely affect mood, behaviour and learning.

·     Young children with heavy media use are at risk for delays in language development once they start school, but more research is needed as to the reasons.

The report provided recommendations for parents and caregivers:

·     Although it is recommended that children under the age of two should have no media/ screentime, if screentime is allowed, set limits for these young children. Have a strategy for managing electronic media if they choose to engage their children with it;

·     Instead of screens, opt for supervised independent play for infants and young children during times that a parent cannot sit down and actively engage in play with the child. For example, have the child play with nesting cups on the floor nearby while a parent prepares dinner;

·     Avoid placing a television set in the child’s bedroom; and

·     Recognize that parents/ caregivers own media use can have a negative effect on children.

To give some basis for the above recommendations, two pieces of evidence exist from 2007 and 2017. Zimmerman et. al., (2007) demonstrated, in a study of 1000 8-16 month olds, that for every hour of videos children watched per day they said, on average, 6-8 fewer words. And the AAP presented on a study from 2017 conducted in Toronto, following 894 children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years of age. They also found a link between screentime and expressive (spoken) language delay. For every additional 30 minutes of screentime there was a 49% increase in risk of delay.

According to Dr. Ari Brown, a member of the AAP council on communications and media: “In today’s ‘achievement culture,’ the best thing you can do for your young child is to give her a chance to have unstructured play—both with you and independently. Children need this in order to figure out how the world works.”

What about older children? For 2 – 5 year olds, the Canadian Paediatric Society and the American Academy of Paediatrics recommend:

·     Limit screentime to under 1 hour per day.

·     Select high quality programmes.

·     Watch videos with your children.

·     Talk with your child while the watching videos.

·     Connect what your child sees to their everyday experiences.

The combination of what children watch and how they watch it (e.g., interacting with you while watching vs. alone) could be even more important than how much two- to five-year-old children watch.

Realistically speaking:

So, we have seen some evidence that screentime is not a great way of promoting your child’s language development. Where possible, children under two should not have any screentime but between two and five years of age they can have some limited use of screens.

Interacting with your child is always the best way to help children learn and grow. Use your everyday interactions as opportunities and have fun with them. Think about how you can interact with your child at bath-time, mealtimes or when you’re out and about looking and talking about things. These are the situations in which language learning happens best.



1.    Christakis, D. A. (2009). The effects of infant media usage: what do we know and what should we learn? Review Article. Acta Paediatrica, 98, 8-16.

2.    American Academy of Pediatrics (2017). Handheld Screen Time Linked with Speech Delays in Young Children. Retrieved from

Zimmerman, F. J., Christakis, D. A. & Meltzoff, A. N. (2007). Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years. The Journal of Pediatrics, 151, 364-368

Screentime - what's the harm?