Screen Time for Preschoolers: How Much is Too Much?

Decide on screen time limits for your child

Words by
Kara Rhodes

DEC 08, 2021

Screen Time for Preschoolers: How Much is Too Much?

Decide on screen time limits for your child

With unlimited access to smart devices, society now possesses tendencies and habits we could never have predicted. Considering the dependency and often unhealthy relationships that adults experience with smartphones, parents have questions about screen time limits for our children.

Families are tasked with understanding brain development, identifying potential pitfalls, and assessing the risk to children. Questions surrounding this decision must ask about timing and readiness as well as the possibility of developing problematic smartphone usage (PSU). In this context, our purpose is to provide parents with relevant information to make the best decision for their families.

Can Smartphones Cause Developmental Delays?

We marvel at tiny children as they intuitively navigate technology that confounds adults. We praise them for being so smart. What we know about brain development in early childhood has established a set of milestones of expected skills and behaviors that we hope to observe. For example, most children can use a pencil or crayon to copy a circle by age three. By age six, most youngsters can draw a person with at least six body parts (Centers for Disease Control, 2021).

Concern among medical and child-development experts has arisen due to developmental delays caused by excessive screen time, especially early access to devices by very young children. An understanding of the impact of smartphones and tablets on cognitive and social-emotional development is just emerging, but the results advise a pause in providing preschoolers with access. 

Research has been conducted linking screen time to deficits in language acquisition, short-term memory skills, and expected proficiency in reading and math.

—Dr. Helena Dutch, Psy.D, Columbia University

One aspect of current research observes how access to technology can evolve into problematic behaviors and unhealthy attachments. More research has been conducted linking screen time to deficits in language acquisition, short-term memory skills, and expected proficiency in reading and math (Duch, H., 2013). In short, just because young children demonstrate the innate ability to navigate a device does not mean that screens are safe.

Smart Devices Harm Sleep

Not only is the impact of screen time on brain development gravely concerning, but its influence on sleep quality and duration is concerning. The importance of adequate rest has been well-established for decades, as every parent of an overtired preschooler will agree. Lack of sleep in children presents physically, psychologically, and behaviorally. In a study of nearly 5000 families with children ages four to five, researchers determined that “children with sleep problems had a poorer health-related quality of life, more behavior problems, and higher rates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder” (Hiscock, et al., 2007).

The use of touch screen devices was associated with taking a longer time to fall asleep and sleeping for less time.

—Dr. Sonia Chindamo, Psy.D, Novella Fronda Foundation of Addiction Research

A study published in the European Journal of Pediatrics continued this research, focusing on how touch screens diminish the amount and quality of sleep in toddlers. They determined that using these devices was associated with taking longer to fall asleep and sleeping for less time. Researchers hypothesized that since lack of sleep impairs cognitive function, using this new media would ultimately factor into developmental delays. Consequently, pediatricians, public health advisors, and parents should view usage as a potential health hazard (Chindamo, 2019).

Heavy Smartphone Use

Signs of problematic smartphone use:

  • Excessive or uncontrollable use
  • Preoccupation or neglect of other activities
  • Continued use despite the evidence of potential harm
  • Use while:
    • Playing with others
    • Having a conversation
    • Engaging in other media like watching a television show

Problematic smartphone use (PSU) is prevalent in adults and older teens and is observed even in toddlers. Heavy smartphone use officially takes hold when a user begins to compromise pleasurable (like playing with friends) and necessary (like sleeping and eating) activities for more screen time. Children suffering from PSU demonstrate “excessive or uncontrollable use, preoccupation, neglect of other activities, and continued use despite the evidence of potential harm” (Park, 2021).

Gyeongsang National University conducted an extensive study of over 1,300 Korean children ages three to six that examined smartphone use to identify patterns that lead to problematic outcomes. They looked at several factors, including frequency and duration of use and the types of apps accessed. After their study, they found that one of every five preschoolers experienced problematic use, especially in those who accessed devices for more than two hours per day (Park, 2021).  

Harmful behaviors established in childhood can shape the subsequent life course of the individual.

—Dr. Samantha Sei Yon Sohn, MBBS Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery Education, King’s College London GKT School of Medicine

A separate literature review looking at the prevalence and effects of PSU reveals that one in four children engage in detrimental access, leading to negative effects on mental health, sleep, and educational achievement (Sohn et al., 2021). They consider the problem a public health concern analogous to substance addiction and want policymakers to develop assessment tools to prevent long-term mental, social, and cognitive issues. This cohort warns, “Younger populations are more vulnerable to psychopathological developments, and harmful behaviors and mental health conditions established in childhood can shape the subsequent life course” (Sohn et al., 2021).  

Given that the implications on the development and mental well-being of preschoolers who have access to this type of technology are just coming into focus, parents may find themselves in a quandary. Perhaps children have already developed PSU or are beginning to show signs like agitation and defiant behavior when screens are removed. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests the following guidelines to help parents set healthy limits.

  • For children 2 to 5, limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on weekends.
  • For ages 6 and older, encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens.
  • 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.
  • Turn off screens and remove them from bedrooms 30-60 minutes before bedtime.

(AACAP, 2020)

Transitioning away from screen time may be hard. But your kids will follow your lead if you reinforce a sense of engagement and connection away from screens.

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