Feb. 14, 2022

Study shows majority of children under five are getting too much screen time

Even before COVID, meta-analysis of global data reveals screen time guidelines are rarely met

Calgary, AB – A large new University of Calgary study shows that most children five and younger are getting too much screen time.

Established pediatric guidelines recommend children under two avoid screens and children aged two to five should only have a maximum of one hour per day. But a new meta-analysis of 95 studies, that included a total of 89,163 children from around the world, revealed that only 24.7 per cent of children younger than two met the guideline to avoid screens and just 35.6 per cent of children aged two to five years met the guideline of spending no more than an hour a day in front of a device. The study has been published in JAMA Pediatrics.

For UCalgary psychology researchers Dr. Sheri Madigan, PhD, and Dr. Brae Anne McArthur, PhD, this is especially concerning because the data was all collected before the pandemic began. Since COVID, estimates are that screen time has at least doubled across the board.

This meta-analysis gives us a pre-COVID baseline estimate of young children’s screen use, and what this study is telling us is that a very small minority of children were actually meeting the pediatrics screen use guidelines pre-pandemic. What concerns us, is that we know screens are very habit forming so, once children start on a trajectory of increased screen use, they tend keep that level of screen use over time.

- Dr. Sheri Madigan, PhD, associate professor with the Faculty of Arts and Canada Research Chair in the Determinants of Child Development

For young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines have been in place since they were first established in 1999. The reason for this is that sitting in front of a screen, no matter how educational or interactive the content, can interfere with important opportunities for young children to learn, move, and grow developmentally.

“Healthy child development is really contingent on having rich interactions with caregivers and other people in the home, who can really foster language and developmental skills, and promote motor skills by encouraging their children to get outside and be physically active,” says Madigan. “The concern that we have is that when children are watching screens they’re actually missing a lot of opportunities to learn key developmental skills that we know can really set them up for success long term.”

The researchers found that children under two who watched screens were mostly getting it from TVs, watching shows, movies and streaming services. Between two and five were watching multiple devices. However, it’s not all bad as the pediatric guidelines do acknowledge the benefits of video chats with family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, which has been a necessity for most during times of isolation and quarantine during COVID. Even watching a family movie together is better than allowing a young child to sit in front of a screen alone. The researchers say parents shouldn’t feel guilty if their children watch a screen while they’re trying to get dinner on the table. But be aware of what they are watching and for how long.

Modeling healthy behaviours is also really important. We know that children’s screen use is highly related to their parents screen use, so what they see is what they do. The more that parents can model healthy device habits, like putting phones away and spending device-free family time together, the more likely children are to develop those habits as well.

- Dr. Brae Anne McArthur, instructor and director of UCalgary’s Psychology Clinic

Ultimately, say the researchers, parents shouldn’t be left alone to combat the allure of screens. They suggest policy makers develop regulations or policies to govern how media companies operate. For example, streaming services should not automatically start new episodes one after the other, as this could keep kids on screens longer than parents intended.

“We need to find a way to better support families as a whole, which may be partially accomplished through policies aimed at media companies, as well as supports for parents,” says McArthur. “The onus of managing a child’s screen time shouldn’t fall just on caregivers.”

Sheri Madigan is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts, and a member of ACHRI, the Owerko Centre at ACHRI, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the Mathison Centre of Mental Health Research and Education at the Cumming School of Medicine. She is a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development.

Brae Anne McArthur is an instructor and director of the Psychology Clinic in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts.

The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and wellbeing of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across the campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.

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