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The Effects of Screen Time on Children

Among the parenting world, many topics can become points of contention. Is this idea the right or wrong way to parent? Will it have a positive or negative effect on our children? Screen time, and specifically time spent watching television, has become one of the most common points of contention.

It is often reported that screen time should be limited, it can stunt development, or it creates aggression. The points people often miss are the benefits of screen time and the effects of passive screen time, meaning second hand exposure to screens through parents or siblings. In this article we’ll explore the possible effects of screen time that we’ve discovered — both positive and negative.

The Positive Effects of Screen Time

Screens are tempting and motivating to children — no one will deny that. Children are being raised in a time when technology and screens are everywhere. They see their parents and friends using them and they want to as well.

This can lead to an increased motivation to participate in activities that they dislike because they are in a medium that they do enjoy. Schools are incorporating more and more technology to harness this desire and children are learning better.

At a young age, children can be exposed to more stimuli and learning material through technology than ever before (though, of course, this doesn’t have to replace person to person learning). This technology also allows expansion in other areas, such as communication and family bonding: Long distance family can now be face to face through a phone. You can see gestures, facial expressions, and even surroundings rather than just hear a voice. Children can build and feel that in-person bond even when being in person is not possible.

On a basic level, screen time at a young age teaches a child skills that will be necessary throughout all stages of their life. It will not only be mandatory to use a computer but assumed that they already have all of the knowledge to know how.

They will need to understand new technology as it emerges in order to keep up in the changing world. Learning technology and screen time is now a basic requirement, just as learning to eat with a spoon or write the ABCs has been in regards to development. Of course there must still always be a balance, but early exposure to screens and technology is not always a bad thing.

The Negative Effects of Screen Time

As with anything, there is also a downside to the increase in technology and screens in our lives.

Children are easily hooked into technology and can form addictions. They cannot always be monitored and can be exposed to inappropriate material. Studies have shown that video games can increase aggression, but generally this is in a child who already had the predisposition to aggression.

Screen time can also reduce person to person interactions and limit social skills. It is becoming more and more rare to see children using their imaginations or playing outside. Instead, it is becoming much more common to see a group of children engrossed in their tablets. This loss of social skills is perhaps the negative issue that bothers people the most.

Along with the psychological and social negatives of screen time, there has also been some discussion and concern about the possible negative physical effects. It is suspected that frequent device use can have damaging effects to eyes, hands, and posture. It is also a concern that the lack of physical activity is contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic.

The Impact of Second Hand Screen Time

One factor of screen time that people often do not consider is passive screen time or second hand. Most of the time this references when children are seeing things on a screen through another person; for example, parents watching a television show in the background while their children play.

As parents, we see a child deep in play and don’t think that they are paying any attention to what we are doing or watching, but children are very aware of many things and often see things we do not expect them to. This can lead to inappropriate exposure without us even realizing it. Something we see on television as normal can be terrifying to a young child as they may not understand it. Without even realizing it, we may be exposing our children to violence and this factors into the negative impacts screen time can have on children.  

Even something as simple and normal as watching the news can lead to damaging effects on a child who is too young to understand. In a day where terrorism and school violence is almost a daily topic, the news is scary and can have impacts on children even when we do not intend it.

Another factor we tend to forget or ignore is commercials. Commercials for horror movies or sexual products are allowed on almost all stations and, even if we are watching a show that is innocent enough, we can still inadvertently expose our children to traumatizing or inappropriate subject matter.

The Effects of Our Own Personal Screen Time Behavior

Another part of our screen time that we do not often consider is the impact we have on our children by being attached to our screens. Just as we worry about our children over using or become addicted to screens, we as adults often don’t even realize issues with our own behavior because it is just seen as normal.

More and more children are complaining about feeling second to a parent’s phone or that their parents spend more time with their phone, computer, tablet, or television than they do with them. We may innocently tell them to hold on when they try to tell us something because we want to see something or read something, but that innocent few seconds tells the child that what we are doing is more important than they are.

This is not to say that we should never make them wait or never use technology, but we should find a balance. Rather than always seeing that time that they are engaged in play as an opportunity to watch a show or check our phone, get down and play with them sometimes.

Try pausing the television when they want our attention so we can engage fully with our children. Perhaps they will interrupt less because they do not feel neglected!

Finding the Balance

This is definitely not a battle that will ever be won by an all or nothing approach and the answer is not the same for everyone. There needs to be a balance between child, parent, and non-screen time. Every family will have different needs and every child and parent will need to discover what works for them.

There will also be days where the normal routine and expectation just doesn’t work. Some days — like when a parent is sick — more screen time will be needed to help entertain a healthy and rambunctious child. Other days — like when a parent has a special day off of work — there will be less screen time and more interacting.

It’s also okay to make screen time interactive. Use a television show as special time together. Make it something special to watch together and then discuss after. In short, it doesn’t have to be another parent battle.  Use your best judgement since you are the one who knows your child best and know what is good for them and you as a family.

The Effects of Screen Time on Children


Jeremy Bidwell, Ph.D.

Dr. Bidwell is the founder and director of The LodeStone Center, which opened its doors in April of 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, and a post-doctoral M.S. in Clinical Psychopharmacology. Dr. Bidwell tends to begin from a very practical and problem-solving orientation in therapy to reduce the impact of the things that can be changed right away. Some symptoms can be addressed in a short period of time (like insomnia) and others require a long-term focus (such as mending troubling relationships). He feels he is able to be very directive in therapy when it will benefit the goals of his clients, and can be very non-directive and empathic when what is most needed is a supportive environment to explore one’s difficulties.

APA Reference
Bidwell, J. (2019). The Effects of Screen Time on Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 18, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-effects-of-screen-time-on-children/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 12 Apr 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 12 Apr 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.