Can too much screen time harm my baby or child?

There is some research that suggests that long periods of screen time can harm language development, lead to sleep disorders, obesity, short-sightedness, social isolation, screen dependence, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders.

However, other studies have shown that if used in moderation, watching TV or other online virtual programmes can be beneficial. For example, well-designed programmes can build conversations, aid recognition of letter sounds and words, stimulate an interest in reading, and encourage imaginative play around favourite TV characters. However, frequent screen rest-breaks are essential.

How can I use screen time effectively?

Programmes that encourage singing or physical activity make screen time active rather than passive, can keep your child fit and mentally motivated. Programmes that feature kind behaviour and people from all walks of life can help your child to explore issues such as sharing and behaviour. Wildlife documentaries can inspire an interest in nature, and a craft programme can be a starting point for a messy play activity or a fun cookery session. Your baby or child will also benefit emotionally from snuggling up and watching a film with you. And you can talk about the programme to aid speech and language development.

Should I feel guilty that my child enjoys screen time at home?

Preventing your child from watching TV, using a PC, mobile or tablet may be an unrealistic expectation, especially during periods of isolation at home. The key is to provide a balanced schedule on-and-off screen and to be observant of content.

For example, you can set times for screen viewing (e.g., 10 to 11 o’clock), switch the TV or tablet off (try to give a 5-minute warning), and encourage your child to do pre-set tasks such as construction, drawing, and if possible, outdoor play in the fresh air and sunshine. As for most things, moderation is key.

Is screen time OK for my child when he is in bed?

Too much close screen time at night can prevent your child from getting an adequate amount of sleep, which can have a negative impact on his behaviour. Your child may also watch unsuitable adult programmes or images that are too fast paced for him to understand. It is important that your child watches high quality programmes designed for his age and has frequent rest-breaks off-screen.

During the day, close screen time for 2 hours or more can leave your child feeling ‘glazed’ and unmotivated to do anything else. Importantly, it may harm his developing eyesight.

How can I manage screen time?

Programmes that encourage singing, clapping, music-making, and dancing and make screen time interactive rather than passive, can be hugely beneficial in stimulating fun parent-baby child interactions, two-way communication, physical and emotional skills, and bonding. Short periods of screen time can also help your baby or child to focus on moving images and colours.

A 10-to-15-minute rest or play break (a nap, a cuddle, a feed, or a change of scenery) after about 25 minutes should help to prevent overstimulation. You can then enjoy the rest of the programme together.

The general advice for babies and children aged 2 and 3 years, is to limit TV viewing to one hour a day. It is important that your baby or child sees moving objects in the distance to develop his long-vision and explores the world in 3 dimensions through hands-on play.

For children over the age of 3 years, the general advice is to limit TV time to no more than 2 hours a day. However, for parents who lead fast-paced busy lives, this may be an unreasonable expectation.

What about online visual programmes?

Online visual platforms can offer a vital lifeline, where parents and children can feel energised, share problems, ideas, experiences, fun conversations, and feel part of the wider world too. We all need social contact, so stay connected – even if it means screen time every now and then!

Be sure to give your child’s eyes plenty of exercise too!

By Dr Lin Day, Baby Sensory