The negative effect of screen time on children is something I feel strongly about, and I also know that, as a parent, it is so easy to get on the slippery slope of screen time and use the TV as a babysitter.

Here’s why those hours of undisturbed time for you aren’t worth it. My next blog post will walk you through some ideas about how to help your child develop the ability to do without.

Screen time, for many, many children (people) is addictive. For young children, especially, it is very easy to cross the threshold of “too much” and for them to get into that place of begging for screen time.

To me, the biggest issue with screen time is the opportunity cost – childhood is the time, developmentally, when a human being NEEDS to be living in the real world. The physical, mental, and social developmental windows are short and specific, and our culture already limits options in those areas significantly.


Here are just a few of the sensitive periods for children that can be negatively impacted by screen time:

1) Physical Development. Children between 0 and 6 are in a sensitive period for learning to use their bodies. Balance, flexibility, fine motor and gross motor skills are developed now. Children need this time to practice everything from rolling over to sitting up to crawling to walking to running to dancing, to climbing, etc, etc, etc. If you spend a few hours in a mall these days, you will see many, many people, especially teens, whose bodies are hunched, imbalanced, and whose walk – the most basic of human movements – is awkward. These basics are developed naturally and easily when the child is between 0 and 6, and, especially in today’s culture, they need every minute they can get. And of course, the obesity epidemic among children of all ages is largely caused by the lack of movement caused by excessive screen time.


2) Concentration. A child’s ability to concentrate develops with practice, between the ages of 0 and 6. Screen time PULLS the child’s attention, at a time when a child needs to practice DIRECTING the attention towards something developmentally appropriate that inspires interest and concentration. Even after screen time is over, a child’s mind often replays the story, and a child often spends time focused on how to get more screen time (begging, crying, asking 1000 times), both of which multiply the negative effect of the screen time.


3) Imagination. For a young child, the primary form of imagination is imitation. Because the screen’s relationship with the brain is so powerful, things that have entered the brain during screen time often stay in the mind more powerfully than real life experiences, causing the child to replay a specific screen-based story over and over again in play. Developmentally, children, who have experienced so little of life need to imitate real life at this age, not screen-based stories. Children from about 6 and up have reached a new level of imagination – the ability to imagine more abstract things, like the past, the future, very small things (atoms and molecules), very large things (the entire Universe), and how thoughts and ideas create actions. At this age, play-based stories should be very malleable, changing as children interact, created from scratch and full of each character’s decisions and choices.


4) Social skills. Research shows that there is an inverse relationship between imagination and aggression – the more imagination a child has, the less aggressive he or she is. The kind of free-ranging imaginative play described above helps the older child build social understanding, explore internal human processes, and explore the human range of emotions. It builds creativity and problem-solving skills, the foundations of building win-win social situations.


Some parents argue that having no screen time (sugar/wheat/dairy/artificially-coloured or flavoured foods) means that the child will never develop the ability to self-regulate with these items. Some children have a better ability for self-regulations, but many, many children don’t. Differences in body chemistry and brain dynamics mean that exposure affects different people differently.

In the long-run, outright parent-driven denial of these things will have a negative impact on children’s ability to self-regulate. BUT for a young child, under the age of 6, and especially for many children who have strong physical or behavioural reactions to some or all of these items, it is really, really important that the child spend the earliest years of life feeling what healthy and normal and internally motivated feels like in his or her body and brain. When the child is 6 or above, and old enough to have the ability to step back and observe how those things feel in the body or brain, is the time to give the child the opportunity to learn how these things affect him or her. Then, share information about what you’ve observed, share why you choose not to use these things yourself, and keep the conversation going by listening to your child’s reasons for wanting those things. In my experience, setting the example, sharing loving, respectful, informative, research-based conversations, providing developmentally-appropriate alternative treats and activities, and giving children opportunities to see the effects on themselves or others will get most children on board with minimizing the exposure to these things in their lives.


Keep your eyes open for my next blog post, which will give you some specific ideas about how to wean a child off of screen time, and how to prevent it from becoming too big an influence in your lives in the first place.


AND, if you really need some support with this, check out my Summer Sanity Saver HERE. I was thinking this morning I should have called it Winter Sanity Saver, because so many of the ideas for rainy days are so perfect for this time of year, and because the general concepts are key all year long. If you want to help your child develop concentration, initiative, and independent play skills during those long indoor days, you will LOVE the Summer Sanity Saver this winter!