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From phones and tablets to laptops and televisions, the popularity of smart devices and streaming services has raised an important question for parents: How much screen time should I allow my child?

As tempting as it may be to calm a distressed baby or distract a demanding toddler with a video or an app, experts warn there is a limit as to how much electronic media they should be exposed to.

However, it’s also accepted that some screen time may be beneficial to the development of children older than two years of age.

So, what’s the right balance?

It’s helpful to consider the pros and cons of letting your little one watch a television program or play with an app.

The risks of screen time for babies and young children

Like adults, children are fascinated by technology and can easily be consumed by the seemingly endless range of videos, programs, games and apps.

Even the process of simply pressing buttons and lighting up the screen can develop into a habit for a curious infant.

But developing a reliance on videos or apps to soothe your child is unhealthy.

Fiddling with a device may cure boredom in the short term, however, it is also a missed opportunity for your toddler to develop constructive and healthy ways of entertaining themselves.

Leading medical educators such as the Mayo Clinic say too much screen time has been linked to a range of issues for children including:

  • disrupted sleep patterns
  • behavioural problems
  • loss of social skills
  • reduced playtime

Exposure to inappropriate media content like violent video clips or animation and advertisements that children may believe are factual can also be harmful.

Parents need to be mindful of passive screen access – a child’s playtime or mealtime (both of which are healthy activities) can easily be disrupted by whatever is showing on a nearby television or computer screen.

The benefits of screen time for babies and young children

Restricted, supervised and selective screen time can assist in the development of children aged over two-years-old.

Parenting experts including the Raising Children Network say good quality apps and games designed for young children can:

  • encourage creativity
  • teach them problem-solving
  • help develop their communication and social skills
  • stimulate their interest in specific activities

Likewise, many age-appropriate television programs and videos are educational and encourage youngsters to sing or dance along to songs or nursery rhymes, helping develop language, literacy and motor skills.

There are also many shows and movies that reinforce positive messages about relationships, families and life, and inspire ideas for the child’s playtime.

An important aspect of a child’s screen time is parental participation; if mum, dad, grandparents or other carers are watching or playing also, the child will enjoy the experience and learn more.

What do experts advise?

If your child is going to be sitting still, it’s best they are engaged in activities such as reading, singing, puzzles and storytelling.

Children’s Health Queensland and the Commonwealth Department of Health recommend no screen time at all for children younger than two years old.

Child development authorities suggest limiting daily screen time for older children.

Children aged between two and five years should be exposed to a maximum of one hour of screen time – ideally less – over a 24-hour period.

Whether experts condemn or advocate screen time, they do agree that a child’s development will benefit from active play and interaction with others, through which they will learn valuable movement and communication skills.

Be a role model

We need to remind ourselves that constant use of phones and tablets as the sole source of recreation can be unhealthy for people of all ages, not just children.

Children learn from their parents so be prepared to lead by example when teaching them healthy screen time habits – for example, switching off devices at mealtime, putting your phone elsewhere when you are playing with your little one or turning off the television when you are finished watching a program.

If children develop healthy screen time habits when they are young, they are more likely to make productive use of their free time when they are older.

More information

Want more information about managing screen time for young children? Visit our Growing Good Habits website or read the Raising Children’s Network’s article Healthy screen time and quality media choices: 0-2 years.