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Screen time and young children

There is evidence to suggest that if a child spends a lot of time in front of a screen in early childhood, it can have a negative effect on their development. Learn how you can avoid problems with screen time and young children.

There is evidence to suggest that if a child spends a lot of time in front of a screen in early childhood, they could be more likely to:

  • sleep less and have sleep issues
  • be overweight or obese

Screens can be smartphones, gaming devices, tablets, computers and televisions.

TVs and videos

If a young child spends a lot of time watching television or videos, there is evidence to suggest they could be more likely to:

  • have poorer language skills
  • have poorer cognitive skills, for example, issues with their attention

A child might experience these issues because of the time they are spending in front of a screen. They should instead be moving and playing. They should also be sleeping. Having contact with others is also vital. These are activities that are a key part of their development.

There is evidence to suggest that having a TV on in the background can have a negative impact on a child’s development.

Interactive technology

Other devices like tablets and smartphones can be more interactive than traditional TV watching.

There may be more advantages to children using interactive technology, for example, in how they learn to move their fingers and hands when touching a screen. However, we do not know enough yet about the benefits to your child’s learning and development.

Any benefits will depend on:

  • the content of the app or programme
  • how you and your child use the technology

Our advice below can help avoid problems and make the most of screen time:

Screen time limits

You should avoid allowing children under 18 months spend time in front of a screen. This is except for photographs and video calls.

Children aged 18 to 24 months should spend as little time as possible in front of a screen. Those aged between 2 and 5 should spend no more than 1 hour a day.

Parents of children aged 6 and older should place limits on the time spent on screens. This is to ensure this time doesn’t interfere with sleep and physical activities.

How to avoid problems and make the most of screen time

Use of screens

Set limits on your child’s screen time. Try to choose apps that involve you and have automatic stops or pauses – this will make it easier to set time limits.

Screen time can be tempting when you are busy. Instead of giving them a screen, give your young child a toy, an activity or food to occupy them. Involve them in what you are doing, for example, when you are cooking a meal.

Avoid relying on using a screen to calm your child down. Children learning to calm themselves is an important part of their development.

Choosing what your child watches

You should choose programmes or apps that are right for your child's age. Visit the US website Common Sense Media. This site helps parents of children aged 2 years and over with reviews and tips.

Avoid videos or apps that are very noisy or fast-paced. They are not ideal for younger children. They could be too distracting or stimulating.

Get involved with your child’s screen time

Sit with your child when they are playing a game or watching a programme. Talk to them about what they are doing and what they see, and how it relates to the world around them.

Make sure your child is in the same room as you when they are on a device. This means you can watch what they are watching or playing.

Screen-free zones

Make mealtimes screen-free zones.

Keep the hour before bedtime screen-free.

Avoid having screens in children’s bedrooms, including TVs.

Turn off screens when they are not in use. They can distract children and get in the way of their playing and learning.

Lead by example

Be aware of how often you look at screens while you’re with your child. Children like to copy what they see others do. If they see you spending a lot of time using a smartphone they will want to do it too.

Educational apps

There are many apps advertised as educational. There is very little evidence to back up these claims. Check educationalappstore.com where educators evaluate apps and commonsensemedia.org and do your own research. Test apps before your child uses them so you know what they involve.

Teaching your child to interact online

As your child gets older, guide them in how they treat other children. Show them why it is important to respect others online.

Related topics

START campaign: tips on screen time

Webwise: Safer use of the internet by young people

Page last reviewed: 23/08/2018
Next review due: 23/08/2021