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Benefits and Strategies to Successfully Reduce Screen Time for Children

Screen time for young children is a popular topic. With screens being so ubiquitous in our culture, they are difficult to avoid and such an easy tool to use for entertainment. It’s important to understand how screen time can affect children at each stage of development in order to find a healthy balance that works for your family.

A long travel day in the car or a sick day from school may inevitably lead to a more relaxed approach to screen time, and that’s okay. An occasional loosening of your daily approach is to be expected. It’s when that extra hour or more of screen time becomes a regular habit that you may want to make some changes, particularly for children under five.

The primary concern for infants is expressive language delay that can result in young children saying fewer words. Studies have shown that increased television viewing is associated with language delays in early childhood. One of the mechanisms explaining this relationship is that television viewing is believed to reduce opportunities for parent-child interaction and play, which is critical for early language development. Television with the sound on, has been associated with reductions in observed parental word count and conversational turns in children aged two months to four years of age.

As screens have become more widely accessible, researchers have been encouraged to thoroughly examine the effects it has on our children.

Screen time is no longer limited to televisions as in generations prior, but also mobile media devices such as smartphones and tablets. A recent Canadian study from SickKids Hospital on the use of hand-held devices shows that children who are exposed to more screen time through hand-held devices are more likely to have a delayed ability to say words and sentences. For every 30-minute increase in daily screen time, there was a 49% increased risk of expressive language delay. This confirmed the findings of an earlier study that found that children who watch more videos say fewer words. According to this study, for each additional hour of videos that 8-16 month old children watched in a day, they said an average of 6-8 words less than what’s expected for that age group.

Pediatric Recommendations

The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends no screen time for children under two years of age, a maximum of one hour for children two to five, and a maximum of two hours for children older than five. Preschoolers aged two to five years learn best from live, direct, and dynamic interactions with caring adults.

Realistically though, most parents report that having their child watch a video or a short program allows them to get a task done or fit in a much-needed break. While it’s clear that screen time will not promote speech and language development, it may help parents get through a busy day. When it is possible, select high-quality programs such as educational content and apps. If possible, watch the programs together and talk with the child while watching or re-enact it together after watching.  Adults can connect what the child sees to their everyday experiences in real life, and build language and cognitive skills, such as attention, memory and thinking.

The quality of what children watch and if they watch it with a parent or alone, could be even more important than how much two to five year old children watch.

According to the Canadian Pediatric Society children younger than five years require active play and quality family time to develop essential life skills, such as language, self-regulation, and creative thinking.

Regardless of age, children should not have to compete with screens for parental attention. When parents model healthy screen habits, it’s recommended that they do the following:

  • Minimize their own screen use when young children are present, especially for mealtimes, play and other prime opportunities for social learning.
  • Prioritize interactions with children through conversation, play and healthy, active routines.
  • Choose when to use media together and turn off screens when they are not in use, rather than have them on in the background.

Strategies to reduce screen time habits

If you’re already well into an abundance of screen time and want to scale it back to meet the pediatric recommendations, here’s five strategies that can help.

  1. Be consistent

Reducing screen time can be incredibly difficult, especially when you and your child have begun to rely on it. It will take time to reduce these habits, so be patient with yourself and your children as you make adjustments. The key is creating rules and sticking with them. The importance of being consistent and maintaining the boundary with your child cannot be stressed enough. If children are old enough, you can even include them in the rule creation process, by asking them how they want to use screen time and when.

Setting these rules and limitations may be difficult, but it has the added benefit of helping your children build resilience.

Using an egg timer or another simple, visual timer can help with this strategy. This also teaches kids to limit their screen time and not allow it to take over their whole day.

  1. Find new activities

Sometimes all it takes are some fresh new activities to tear children away from their screens. For children as young as four, audio stories or children’s podcasts can be a great alternative to their favourite tv show. Perhaps you haven’t been to the library in a while? You may be surprised how long your 3 year old spends looking at the many books or listening to the librarian’s story time. Other ideas include, having them pretend to cook while you’re making dinner, turning on some music for a dance party or trying a toy rotation – this is where you only give them access to some of their toys, so you can constantly bring in fresh options from storage.

  1. Create a visual schedule

A schedule is helpful for so many things, as children thrive on routine, and can be especially helpful when making a change like this. If they can read or see what to expect that day, they will likely have a less dramatic response to adjustments in screen time. For younger children, the schedule may use pictures instead of words.

  1. Positive reinforcement

Create a reward chart or keep track of their successes on a calendar. When they have reached an age-appropriate milestone they get a small prize in the form of a fun experience, but never more screen time. A milestone is typically about two weeks for a five year old and adjusted down for younger children.

  1. Add movement to movie night

Family movie night may extend your child’s screen time past the recommended amount, so a solution for this is to add in movement breaks. At a slow part of the movie, hit the pause button and call out an exercise that gets everyone moving. For example, ten jumping jacks, five squats or something similar. Once they’ve completed the move, press play. It’ll be a healthy break for everyone in the room.


Ultimately, you need to find a balance between the recommendations and what works for your family. If you’re finding your family is turning to screen time more often than you’d like, we’re here to help you find a balance. At Harrison, our Nurse Practitioners are trained in childhood development and are ready to guide you with personalized strategies for this challenging lifestyle change.

(And don’t worry, we also agree that screen time rules don’t apply on long plane rides!)


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