5 Too Much Screen Time Symptoms: Is Your Child Hooked?

By  Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH | Updated - 26 April 2021

“Does your child show these too much screen time symptoms?”

“Your child is addicted to the phone, you know...”

“Is it OK for you baby to watch Peppa Pig on your phone?”

Talking about screen time and the impact it has on our children can be quite controversial.  And as parents, we can get quite defensive about it.

too much screen time symptoms pin

But it’s a very important conversion that needs to be had in a safe, supportive space. TOGETHER

My own son was addicted to video games as he grew up, which posed it’s own set of challenges… However, we worked through it together with clever boundaries and systems to avoid him becoming frustrated, completely hooked and over-tired…

Now I want to share my advice with all things screen!

Screen Time Ideals Vs. Reality

As parents, we should be asking ourselves how much screen time by age is ok for our children. And what are the effects of too much screen time that we should be looking out for…

In an ideal world, I would wish that children under the age of 3 were NOT introduced to tablets or phones at all.

I appreciate that it is rather idealistic... but learning to live with screens is the main goal and our top priority as parents.

Monitored television is fine for youngsters and there are some educational computer games that can be introduced from about 4 years of age... but again under adult supervision and for short periods of time only.

The main issue we have is that we have learnt about screens along with our children, without fully knowing the consequences!

NOTE

As a parent, knowing what impact screen time has on your child's development is crucial in order for you to make an informed decision about how you monitor screens within your family.

I am not advocating that we throw our telephones and tablets away and never use them again.... as, without a doubt, they are beneficial to our lives in so many ways.

However, as parents, we need to take a close look at how we use our screens to see how we are modelling their use to our children. 

  • Are you showing them how to use them responsibly?
  • Are we aware of the negative effects of screen time on family life?
  • Do we know the signs and effects of too much screen time?

Screen time and its effect on our lives is a new science.

As technology has developed so rapidly, we have all been swept along on the tide of screen addiction, but now is the time to self reflect. 

We need to change our habits for the benefit of ourselves and that of our children.

And, we need to do it sooner rather than later.

Is Too Much Screen Time Harmful?

In a word... YES. 

New parents now have the benefit of the research that has looked at the effects of screen time on children.

There is no doubt that when left unchecked... screen time has a detrimental impact on our children's development.

There are many reasons for this... but the most obvious being that your child develops best when interacting with the world around them and the people in it.

When they are looking at digital devices, they are taken into a world where they are an observer rather than an explorer.

Even so-called interactive games only need the touch of a button to cause a reaction on the screen.

Children can be taken on a journey on a screen where they don't have to get up, move around or use any physical activity.

Studies have proven that excessive screen time in young children significantly reduces a child's opportunity to experience learning.

In turn, this can significantly impact on your child's growth and healthy development.

REMEMBER

There is no touching, feeling, tasting, pushing, pulling, building or conversations happening when playing on a screen. Is that really how we want our children to be growing up? 

14 Reasons Why Screen Time Is Bad For Childhood Development

Here are some facts for you to consider when thinking about the impact of screen time and early child development:

  1. Between the ages of 18 months to 3 years, language development is at its peak... and it is proven that children learn best from interacting with an adult who talks and plays with them at this age. By being on a screen they are missing this vital interaction.
  2. As well as this... back and forth conversations with another human are essential to childhood language development.
  3. Screens only provide passive listening and one-way interaction. This can breed social awkwardness or selfishness when children grow up.
  4. 2-year-olds may be captivated by a video but, contrary to popular belief, they are NOT able to learn from it. They learn best from interacting with another person.
  5. Passive screen time has been allowed to run rampant into our lives without moderation. But, it should NOT replace reading, playing or problem-solving. As these are essential tasks to aid in healthy development.
  6. Screen time impacts on language and social development.
  7. Excessive early year TV exposure can cause attentional problems in children when they grow up and they cannot focus on a task for a long amount of time. [1]
  8. Too much screen time before bed can disrupt the circadian rhythm and shortens night time sleep, which is crucial to a child’s brain and body developing properly.
  9. 2-3-year-olds do not have an understanding of self-discipline to put a phone or tablet down after a period of time. This can start a cycle of addiction from a very early age.
  10. Trying to take a tablet or phone away from a toddler often leads to conflict. But, as they cannot communicate their feelings effectively, it can lead to resentment and unhealthy attachments to screens.
  11. Television is preferred to tablets or phones as it is static, easier to monitor and less isolating. But, it must still be used under parental supervision as children can easily get sucked into watching TV for hours on end without doing anything productive or imaginative.
  12. Too much screen time affects your child's ability to use their imagination and creativity... which are essential to healthy development!
  13. Excessive screen use can shorten your child’s attention span which will affect your their ability to concentrate on normal age-appropriate tasks.
  14. In extreme cases... too much screen time can lead to behaviour problems stemming from a warped view of the world from an early age.

As you can see, there are many reasons to limit screen time for toddlers.

And we need to think long and hard about when to introduce screens into our little one's lives if at all.

So, what are the effects of too much screen time?

Too much screen time symptoms and their effects

There are some obvious signs that you can look out for that will indicate that your child is having too much screen time. These symptoms can present themselves both physically and behaviorally and will vary in severity depending on the age of the child.

While the more severe symptoms will occur in older children... knowing what to look out for early on and curbing your child’s screen use accordingly is very important.

Common areas of concern are:

1. Effects on eyesight

  • Do you notice that your child’s eyes are dilated after screen time?
  • Does your child have difficulty making eye contact after screen time?

Too much screen time can put a strain on your young child’s eyes leading to eyesight issues later on.

A good trick to help reduce eye strain in your child is that if they must be on a screen for whatever reason... use the 20-20-20 rule.

20-20-20 Rule

For every 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, you should look at something 20 feet           (~6 metres) away for 20 seconds.

I stress that your young child should have very few reasons to spend more than 20 minutes staring at a screen at a time anyway...

BUT, if it helps to keep them calm on a long flight and you’ve exhausted every other option such as drawing, playing eye-spy or colouring etc... Then make a conscious effort to break the staring session and get them to look up from the screen every 20 minutes.

That’s 4 Peppa Pig episodes - which is more than plenty!! Ideally they should break their gaze every 5 minutes at the end of each episode!

2. Sleep disruption 

Screen time in the hours leading up to bedtime can disrupt sleep patterns and overstimulate your little one, making it difficult for them to settle or stay asleep. [2]

If you must use a screen before bed... try and reduce the blue light being emitted as this is what is inhibiting your child’s body from producing the hormone melatonin, which signals to your brain it is time to calm down and prepare for sleep.

Again, if you really have to use a screen before bed, only show calm videos and music (no games!), ideally on the TV, as your aim is to wind them down for bedtime not rile them up!

REMEMBER

Try not to have screens two hours before bedtime at all.

Under 5’s really do not need to be watching screens all day long. 

3. Overstimulation

  • Is your child showing signs of unreasonable aggression after screen time?
  • Are they generally more irritable?
  • Do they have problems concentrating on non-screen tasks?

Any of these symptoms could be a result of overstimulation from screen time... so if your child is exhibiting some of these symptoms, try reducing screens to see if their behaviour improves.

If you notice irritability occurring, try and wean your child off screens and replace the activity with a fun task you can do together which offers a tangible reward.

For example, an age-appropriate puzzle which shows a lovely image once completed, or baking some blueberry muffins together where they can nibble on the blueberries throughout and can enjoy a fresh muffin as a snack.

4. Temper Tantrums

  • Does your child throw a tantrum if screen time is stopped or not allowed?
  • Would your child rather play on a screen than with other children?

Screen time is, without doubt, addictive and so withdrawing from interacting with others is a sure sign that something is amiss.

Also, if your child has a meltdown whenever screen time is taken away or forbidden... then there is definite cause for concern that screen time is getting out of control.

As I mentioned in the point above... try and wean off screen time with tasks that have a tangible reward such as puzzles, treasure hunts, baking and dog walks etc.

Treasure Hunt Idea

"Find 5 red things, 4 fluffy things, 3 wooden things, 2 of daddy’s things and 1 yellow toy and you can choose what book to read at bedtime as a reward!"

5. Language and Emotional Development Issues

In extreme cases, a young child’s language and emotional development can be harmed by too much screen time.

Lack of interaction with other human beings, social reactions and emotions will mean that some children may lack empathy.

Also, many screen games do not allow young children to explore their emotions in a healthy way but rather dictate how they react to a given situation.

As children become more withdrawn... they will also not be learning and developing language as they would if they were interacting with their parents or siblings.

Reading a book and chatting about what you see, for example, is far more beneficial to your little one’s language development than watching or interacting with a screen.

So, how much screen time is too much? 

What’s the recommended screen time for children per day?

Knowing how much screen time is ok for your child is essential. So here are the basic guidelines for how much screen time per day your little one should have by age:

0-18 months: Avoid screen time except for video calling family.

18-36 months: If parents feel the need to introduce screen time at this age... it should be high-quality educational programmes that are watched with a parent on a television. Ideally, no more than 30-40 minutes a day.

3-5 years: Screen time should be limited to 1 hour a day and should be high quality with parents watching with them. This is to explain to your child what they are watching and how it relates to their daily lives. 

These are my outlines for recommended screen time for kids. They are also what the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry [3] recommend.

Too much screen time symptoms infographic how much screen time by age

Data from The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry [3].

In fact, they say it’s ok for 3-5 year olds to spend more time on a screen at weekends… but I STRONGLY disagree. 

The weekend is the perfect opportunity to get out and about and avoid a screen all together!

However, I fully understand that each family will have their own way of doing things… But I highly recommend you do NOT exceed the above guidelines very often.

If you do need to leave your child alone to watch a screen... then make sure that what they are watching is age-appropriate.

Note

There are some great programmes out there designed for young children that they can watch alone for short periods of time. But, watching them with you is always the best.

Managing Screen Time Appropriately & setting boundaries

So, now that we have looked at the pitfalls of screen time and the effect it can have on your little one, let’s talk about managing screen time appropriately.

The main thing to remember is that... When used carefully and in the correct way, screens and technology can be an amazing tool. 

But, we need to show our children, especially the very young, how to use them and choose what they can see and for how long.

A good way to look at it is that technology should be a source of learning and information for kids... And NOT a way of life. This applies to parents too!

Of course, we can use screens in a limited capacity for entertainment as well.

Watching an age-appropriate movie with your preschool child is fine... Sitting with your toddler to watch a short age-appropriate TV show is also OK.

These are positive screen experiences that you can share with your little one in a regulated and monitored way.

The take away from all this is that... screens are here to stay in our lives and technology is going to play an important role in the lives of our children.

But, now more than ever... we should raise our children from the very start to treat these devices with respect; to teach them how to use screens in a beneficial and healthy manner so that they add quality to our lives and do not dominate them.

remember

When used carefully and in the correct way, screens and technology can be an amazing tool. 

Here are my top screen time boundaries I recommend implementing:

  • Screen time amount and content should ALWAYS be age-appropriate.
  • Delay introducing screens as a means to entertain your baby and toddler for as long as possible.
  • Do not give your child your phone to look at while they are out for a walk in their pram.
  • Offer alternatives such as books, paper and crayons when your child gets bored out and about.
  • Television programmes watched with an adult are preferable to iPads and smartphones.
  • Young children should not be left alone watching screens... UNLESS it is a TV programme that is age-appropriate and can be watched alone while you cook a meal, for instance.
  • Screen time before bedtime should be limited to low key TV programmes.
  • The bedtime routine should be screen-free.
  • Mealtimes should be screen-free.
  • Bedrooms should be screen-free areas for toddlers and preschoolers.
  • Lead by example. Try to avoid being distracted by your phone while interacting with your child i.e at mealtimes, bedtime, playtime or on a walk.
  • When you do let your child use an interactive screen, make sure they are watching age-appropriate content. Take part in the screen time with them, talking about what you see and do. This applies to TV shows as well.
  • Teach preschool children to respect screen devices and that they need to be used sparingly and responsibly.

As soon as your child is old enough to understand, explain why too much screen time is unhealthy.

Statistics Infographic Screen Time Per Week

Too much screen time Symptoms & The effects on our children

Screens and the use of digital devices have become part of our daily lives and they are very useful in so many ways.

But, even we have our issues with screen addiction... and I think most of us would admit that we probably spend more time than we should be looking at a screen.

That being said, as grown adults, with developed brains who can make choices about the impact of screens on our lives... we have a responsibility to make those choices for our children who do not.

Screen time addiction

We have to look at the long term here... we are all aware of the impact screens have had on the lives and mental health of teenagers and one day... your little one will be a teenager too.

Therefore, it is hugely important that you teach and show your young child how to use digital devices responsibly... so that they grow up knowing to treat screens with respect.

As they grow up, Facebook and Instagram feeds will no doubt appear in your child's life.

But these platforms have been proven to trigger the reward response in our brains - exactly like the hit you get from taking drugs, drinking alcohol or eating sugar.

Therefore, you can see the potential for addiction to screens down the line. 

We would not expose our young children to drugs or alcohol... so we should take equal care with our children's screen time from an early age.

The best way to do this is my modelling responsible use of screens.

  • Try not to use your screens around your children. If they see you looking at a screen rather than talking or looking at them they will obviously want to look too.
  • Have device-free meal times.
  • When your child uses screens... be present and share the time with them. Make sure you have checked that what they are watching is age-appropriate beforehand.
  • Don't use phones and tablets as the first means to amuse your child when they get grumpy or bored. Offer other activities like crayons and paper and make sure you have toys in your day bag for these moments.

Screen time and sleep

As I mentioned earlier in this post... good quality sleep is essential to your little one's healthy development.

If your child is using digital devices leading up to bedtime it may impact on the quality of their sleep or make it difficult for them to settle. There are many several reasons for this:

  • Screen time in the hour before bedtime is over-stimulating your child.
  • Blue light from screens can suppress melatonin levels and delay sleep.
  • Your little one might be resistant to going to bed if you have to drag them away from a screen.

There are, however, some easy tips to follow which can help reduce screen time before bedtime:

  • Avoid the use of screens 1 hour (ideally two hours) before bedtime.
  • Establish a screen-free bedtime routine that focuses on bath, book and bed.
  • Lead by example and ensure you are also not using screens during the hour before your little one's bedtime. 

Screen time and emotional and social development

Another area you have to consider when thinking about screen time and your child's development is that... screen time may impact on emotional and social development if not monitored wisely. 

We have to look at the long term effects of too much screen time in order to fully appreciate how careful we need to be when introducing screens to the very young.

Humans are designed to be social beings that interact with each other in person by reading body language and facial expressions.

Unless we are video calling these cues are missing and as we are all aware... in many social situations you will witness people in a group more likely to be engaging with a technical device than with each other.

You might ask what has this got to do with the subject of electronics and child development... but it is only by looking around you and seeing the impact screens are having on us all that we can become fully aware of the need to ensure that the youngsters we are raising today have a healthier approach to technology.

We often comment on the fact that the youth of today are lacking in kindness, good manners and thoughtfulness... But, I believe that spending too much time interacting with devices of some kind is contributing to this.

In addition, parents are supporting this behaviour by modelling their own dependence on technical devices. (The harsh truth I'm afraid.)

Note

Take a moment to reflect... Are you on your phone all the time? If so, you cannot have one rule for your children and another for you.

You need to lead by example and show your children how to behave around screens.

The key areas of emotional and social intelligence are empathy, motivation, awareness, self-regulation and social skills.  All of these can be negatively impacted by too much screen time at an early age.

Children require time with their own thoughts and feelings. If your little one is allowed to develop a dependency on screens... they end up living in a detached world where they are observers rather than participants, and reactive rather than reflective.

Research has also proven that too much screen time in young children can stall their ability to mature emotionally... and that they are more likely to bully and throw temper tantrums.

Statistics Infographic Norwegian Study Emotional Development & Screen Time Symptoms

Data from The British Psychological Society [4].

With the onset of video calling, we might be led to think that screen use can be beneficial socially for our children.

While being able to see the other person is preferable to texting, for instance... having 24/7 access to friends is NOT always a good thing.

There is no self-regulation required or anticipation of looking forward to seeing someone the next day.

Everything is instant... requires no planning... and having such open access to peers can distract from schoolwork and spending time with family.

Finally, too much screen time can impact on motivation.

A child that is spending too much time using a technical device, when asked to come away and interact with the rest of the family... will often become disgruntled and bored.

Their ability to find the world interesting has become muted. And they often become anxious and depressed as they have lost the ability to deal with real-life situations.

Finally, we have to mention the impact of the violent content of screen games.

This is usually more a problem for boys than girls, but it is a very real and worrying issue.

Due to extreme peer pressure, it is often easier to agree to let your son play a game online that is not age-appropriate.

REMEMBER

You should NEVER let your child play a game that is not designed for their age.

Exposing your child to content that they are too young to comprehend is dangerous and damaging in the long term.

If aggressive and violent acts are observed and carried out unmonitored in an artificial world... where you can die and then press a button and start again... how is your child meant to appreciate or understand the true and real-life consequences of such actions?

This may all sound like a long way off from where you are at with your toddler... but it is hugely important to be aware of the impact of screens and technical devices on children and family life down the line.

Screens and the family

When it comes to screen use and the family there are a few basic things you should bear in mind. Here are some simple rules you can put in place to ensure that as a family your screen time is healthy and being modelled in a positive way.

Beware of background TV

There can be a misconception that having the television on in the background when your baby or young toddler are playing happily... that they are totally unaware of what is happening on the screen.

Research has in fact shown that this is not the case and that unsuitable content on the screen can filter through to your little one. 

So, if you must have the TV on when your little one is playing... make sure the content is harmless.

Have tech-free times and zones

Having specific times and areas in the home that are tech-free is a must in a modern day home.

This means not looking at your phone at mealtimes or while you are feeding your little one in their high chair.

As your children grow, make time for reading and talking together, cooking, crafting or spending time outside without any technology use.

Install screen time limits

All technical devices can have parental guidance limits put on them... even the television!

Especially for the preschool child who will quickly learn their way around a device... You need to have these limits in place to ensure that they do not accidentally come across inappropriate content.

Model good screen time habits

As always, it is up to you to show your children how to treat and use screens.

Young children take their lead from you and although a lot of the symptoms I have described here are looking ahead into your child's future... how you introduce your little one to screens in the early years and how you raise them to appreciate the role of technology in their lives will determine how well they manage their use later on.

It is vital that you start as you mean to go on and do not fall into the trap of thinking they are too young for screens to have an impact on their development.

Screen Free Time Infographic

Ironic Recommendations

If you’d like to learn more about screen time and social media’s influence in our lives… the following shows are exceptional at explaining further. 

I know, I know… you watch them on screens… BUT they are well worth a watch and if you have teenage children, they’re fantastic at educating them too. 

If you enjoyed this post and know other parents who would enjoy this content, be sure to give it a share using the buttons below.

Do you have any blog recommendations that you'd like me to write about? 

Drop me comment below or send me an email: [email protected] and let me know. I love hearing from you!

Thank you for your continued support!

References:

[1] Christakis DA, Zimmerman FJ, DiGiuseppe DL, McCarty CA. (2004) Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15060216 [Accessed 21st December 2020]

[2] Cheung CH, Bedford R, Saez De Urabain IR, Karmiloff-Smith A, Smith TJ. (2017) Daily touchscreen use in infants and toddlers is associated with reduced sleep and delayed sleep onset. Scientific Reports. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5390665/ [Accessed 19th December 2020] 

[3]  American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2020) Screen Time and Children. Available from: https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx [Accessed 19th December 2020]

[4] The British Psychological Society (2019) Věra Skalická, Beate Wold Hygen, Frode Stenseng, Silja Berg Kårstad, Lars Wichstrøm: Screen time and the development of emotion understanding from age 4 to age 8: A community study. Available from: https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/bjdp.12283 [Accessed 21st December 2020]

Yes, there are differing opinions on the internet about whether screens are bad or not... BUT even if you're still undecided about whether screens are bad for your children...

Is staring at a screen for hours on end, really how you want them to grow up? Or would you rather they laugh, explore, imagine and create instead?

I will leave you with that thought... and recommend you watch the two documentaries mentioned above to further your knowledge.

With love and support, Paula x

Teething to Tantrums Author

Paula McLaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the childcare industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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