Expert advice on managing children's screen time

Experts have warned about the effects of excessive screen time on children. Picture: Instagram

Experts have warned about the effects of excessive screen time on children. Picture: Instagram

Published Jan 31, 2024


In the modern world, social media and the online sphere as a whole are ever-present.

From smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles, to television screens and computers it is difficult to escape the screens that are all around us.

But experts are warning that this digital world is putting children at risk as more and more parents, guardians and caregivers are finding it increasingly difficult to manage their kids’ screen time.

Registered Johannesburg counsellor Salmaan Khader, who has worked extensively with children and families, noted that while technology has undoubtedly provided numerous benefits and educational opportunities, its potential negative effects have also raised concerns.

“The impact of technology on young children is a topic of significant concern and research in the field of psychology,” he told Independent Media Lifestyle.

Experts have warned about the effects of excessive screen time on children. Picture: Instagram

Khader explained that excessive screen time can negatively affect youngsters in a variety of ways. These include:

Cognitive development

The psychologist explained that while technology can be a platform for educational apps and games that stimulate cognitive development in children and that it can help with early literacy, numeracy, problem-solving and creativity, it is not without its dangers.

“Excessive screen time, especially passive consumption of content, may hinder cognitive development as it can displace other important activities such as reading, physical play and face-to-face interactions,” he said.

Social and emotional development

Khader warned that technology can facilitate communication and social interaction, but it can also lead to reduced face-to-face social interactions, potentially affecting social and emotional development.

“The overuse of screens has been associated with issues like increased aggression, reduced empathy and difficulty in recognising and managing emotions.”

Sleep patterns

Khader warned that excessive screen time, especially before bedtime, can disrupt sleep patterns in children.

He explained that this is because the blue light emitted by screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, making it difficult for children to fall asleep.

Physical health

Prolonged screen time is often linked to a sedentary lifestyle, which can contribute to health problems like obesity and musculoskeletal issues, Khader cautioned.

Parent-child relationships

Excessive screen time can reduce the quality of parent-child interactions, the registered counsellor said.

“Parents may struggle to engage with their children when screens are constantly present.”

Experts have warned about the effects of excessive screen time on children. Picture: Instagram

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry also noted the dangers of excessive screen time for youngsters, adding that parents may not always be aware of what their children are viewing or how much time they are spending on screens.

The organisation cautioned that children may be exposed to

  • Violence and risk-taking behaviours.
  • Videos of stunts or challenges that may inspire unsafe behaviour.
  • Sexual content.
  • Negative stereotypes.
  • Substance use.
  • Cyberbullying and predators.
  • Advertising aimed at your child.
  • Misleading or inaccurate information.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommended that parents construct a screen-time plan for their children.

They have provided the following as a guideline:

  • Until 18 months of age, limit screen use to video chatting along with an adult.
  • Between 18 and 24 months of age, screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver.
  • For children aged two to five, limit non-educational screen time to about one hour per weekday and three hours on the weekend.
  • For ages six and older, encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens.

The organisation also suggested that parents turn off all screens during family meals and outings, learn about and use parental controls, avoid using screens as pacifiers, babysitters or to stop tantrums and turn off screens and remove them from bedrooms 30-60 minutes before bedtime.

In addition, Khader has also offered the following advice to parents in regards to children’s screen time:

Set clear boundaries

He said that this includes establishing clear and consistent screen-time limits based on age-appropriate guidelines.

Prioritise quality content

Encourage the use of educational and age-appropriate content, such as apps, games and shows that promote learning and creativity.

Co-view and co-play

Khader suggested that parents engage with their children during screen time.

“Watching together or discussing what they're experiencing can enhance the educational value and create bonding opportunities.”

Encourage offline activities

Promote a variety of offline activities, such as outdoor play, reading and creative arts to balance screen time.

Model healthy technology use

Khader explained that children often learn by example and that parents should demonstrate healthy technology use.

He explained that this can be done by limiting your screen time and being mindful of your own device usage when around your kids.

Create technology-free zones

Parents can designate certain areas of the home – such as the dinner table or bedrooms – as technology-free zones in a bid to promote face-to-face interactions and uninterrupted sleep.

Be flexible and communicate

Khader recommended recognising that technology is a part of modern life and that parents should be open to discussions with their child about screen time.

He suggested explaining the reasons for limits and the importance of balance.

“It's essential for parents to adapt their approach as their child grows and matures, ensuring that screen time remains developmentally appropriate and beneficial while minimising potential risks,” he added.