Screen time and your child

by | Aug 28, 2020

No matter how well intentioned you are, your child is surrounded by screens – television, phones, and tablets are everywhere, and it’s tempting to use them as babysitters when you’re feeling frazzled. Clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje helps parents to get to grips with this sticky issue.

There is no way to avoid technology and its uses in our everyday lives. However, it is important for parents to be mindful of how technology and electronic media can impact on their child’s emotional, social and cognitive development.

As a psychologist working with young children, I have noticed that many children presenting to psychologists and psychiatrists with features of ADHD or depression, may also be impacted by the effects of screen time. Screen time can be seen as any use of electronic media, including tablets, computers, laptops, cell phones, iPads or television.

Difficulties such as poor sleep, poor eye-contact, impulsivity, difficulty paying attention, being moody or easily frustrated, and disorganisation can be signs of both mental health conditions and the effects of screen use. Some psychologists and researchers have termed this group of symptoms as ‘Electronic Screen Syndrome’.

If your child is exhibiting these signs it may be important to seek help from a professional to assess what may be causing the behaviour changes.

Here are a few important things to keep in mind when thinking about screen time, based on current research and literature.

Different areas of the brain are affected

Neuro-imaging studies have shown that excessive screen use can lead to real structural and functional changes to the areas of the brain involved in emotional processing, planning, focused attention, decision-making and empathy. This is as a result of atrophy (loss of volume) of grey matter, especially in the frontal lobe of the brain.

Children’s brains are still growing

Developing brains are particularly vulnerable and require parents to be more thoughtful about how screen time limits can be protective for a child’s growing brain. Children’s brains are especially sensitive between birth and three years old, and this time acts as an important foundation for all later abilities. Children’s development can become stunted or regressed if they do not receive sufficient correct stimulation through active play.

Delayed gratification

The use of tablets, iPads or cell phones by small children creates a means of receiving information that can be overstimulating for their developing senses. Children’s brains are designed to process their experiences at a pace conducive for learning, where they can regulate for themselves how much they can take in.

Electronic media, on the other hand, can create an expectation for children that they will receive input in an immediate manner and, in turn, the reward centre of the brain could become overactive. This may cause children to struggle with patience, delayed gratification and perseverance.

The need for a hyperarousal state can be seen in how some children may begin to tantrum if a television is turned off or a game is taken away from them.


One of the areas of the brain affected by screen time is the area involved in the development of empathy, compassion, communication, building vocabulary and reading other people’s non-verbal signals correctly. These skills are valuable for children to make friends and build healthy relationships.

When a child engages with a television or gaming character, they are not able to fully practise the nuanced skills of conversation, turn-taking, sharing and negotiation. These skills can only develop within safe mutual human interactions and attachments with real people and loving caregivers.


Children generally require between nine and 11 hours of sleep per night. Screen time before bed for toddlers and teens can have a serious impact on their sleep cycles and capacity for restful sleep. Sleep is an essential part of learning and brain development, and the negative effect of screen time on sleep is multi-layered.

  • There may be a delay in the time a child goes to sleep (e.g., because they are watching a television programme).
  • Due to longer periods of screen time in the day there may be less time for exercise and physical activity that is beneficial for sleep.
  • The type of light emitted by electronic devices can act to stimulate or wake the brain up instead of calming down and entering a restful sleepy state.
  • Overstimulating content of games and television programmes can also heighten one’s mental alertness instead of allowing one to relax and wind down.

Social media

Social media has also been linked to depression and suicidal ideation or attempts in children and adolescents. This is impacted on by both the described brain changes, but also by the negative effects of cyber bullying and the unhealthy comparisons made to the unreal lives of others. If limits and responsible use of electronic media can be implemented from a young age, some of these serious consequences can be avoided.

How can parents help use technology in a helpful and educational way, without its consumption leading to damaging brain changes and behavioural difficulties?

  1. Reading

Reading acts to improve connectivity and healthy brain functioning. Reading with your child also improves bonding as it allows for a shared pleasurable activity.

  1. Setting limits

Screen time should be limited to one to two hours per day for children over the age of three years, and preferably no screen time before the age of two. Electronic media are not appropriate for infants.

Limiting screen time before bed is most significant. Parents should be mindful to remove cell phones and electronic devices from their child’s bedroom at night. Having tech-free zones in the house can be a helpful way to instil a balance between using electronic media and having space for play and human connection.

  1. Advocate for active play

Active play using non-mechanical toys (i.e. the child directs the toy’s movement, not a battery or button) such as cars, building blocks, dolls, paints and crayons, dress up, balls, dancing and listening to or playing music, and outdoor play are imperative for healthy physical, social, emotional and cognitive development of your child.

  1. Ensure there are educational benefits

There are several apps and games that can be educational for children. For example, some electronic media are helpful for children to learn new vocabulary, be more mindful, and practise problem-solving strategies.

If you do want to use electronic media with small children, it should be done as a parent-child learning activity; such as exploring new words and pictures online or showing and talking about photographs of themselves or relatives. However, games and television programmes for small children need to be screened first by a parent for what they can offer their child, and limits and supervision must still apply. Some television programmes and games, although advertised as child friendly, can be aggressive and overstimulating in their content.

  1. Role model healthy media habits:

Showing your child a balanced way of using electronic media is essential. For example, if a parent models for a child that it is socially appropriate to turn one’s phone off during meal times; but that it is okay to research and learn something new on the internet, they are more likely to be able to include technology in their lives in a balanced way.

Using electronic media needs to be done in a thoughtful, informed and responsible manner. Screen time cannot be avoided completely as we live in a modern world where technology is part of our everyday routine. However, as parents we do have a responsibility to allow our children to have the best possible start and to facilitate their development in the ways we can.