How does too much screen time affect a child's development? We speak to experts about six ways screens impact growing up

Research has shown that screen time inhibits young children's ability to read faces and learn social skills... let's look a little deeper

Illustration of blue sea overlayed with swimming kids in each lane
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We can't escape screens, they have become part of our lives whether we want them or not. Children and teens are growing up in an environment saturated with digital devices, from smartphones to tablets to laptops and TVs. But, the why, when and how often we use them is still in our control. We ask the experts...

In this article we look at the what, why and how, when it comes to screen time and how excessive screen time can hinder physical, emotional, and cognitive growth, making it essential for parents to set boundaries - we speak to experts to help you do this. We understand that knowing how screen time affects various aspects of development can help parents make informed decisions.

How does too much screen time affect a child's development?

  1. Hinders language development
  2. Affects social skills
  3. Impacts emotional understanding
  4. Linked to obesity
  5. Affects sleep
  6. Leads to depression and anxiety

According to recent studies from Internet Matters, the average child spends between 3-4 hours a day on screens, with teenagers often spending even more time online. This trend raises important questions about the impact of screen time on child development. While technology offers undeniable educational and entertainment value, it's crucial to find a balance.

Gill Baldemor, Head of Teaching and School Relationships at Bright Little Stars agrees, telling us: "When considering the effects of screen time on your toddler or child, parents need to be savvy about the fact that there is a lot of content online that can be bad for children’s mental health and self-esteem. That's why it's so important for parents to step in and keep an eye on what websites their children visit, ensuring any apps or browsing are age-appropriate. Setting up parental controls on devices is also a good idea. This helps filter out inappropriate content and makes sure the apps and websites they access are safe for their age. By doing this, you can create a safer online environment for your children."

Mum of two, Anna tells us: "Not all screen time is created equal right? Leaving my child with their tablet while I do the laundry is not the same as me sitting with her while we watch and engage over an episode of Bluey."

1. Hinders language development

Language development and communication skills are fundamental aspects of a child's growth, and excessive screen time can negatively impact these areas. Children learn language primarily through interaction with caregivers and peers. When they spend too much time on screens, they miss out on these crucial face-to-face interactions.

Spending more time on screens does not help language development, and likely hinders it. Most studies have found that spending more time on screens has either no connection or has a negative connection with children's language abilities.

We spoke with Jeanine Connor, (MBACP) a psychodynamic psychotherapist, and she shared great insight into screens and just how much they affect children and their development. She tells us; "We know that child development happens through social interaction. Excessive screen time among very young children diminishes the quality and quantity of interactions with parents or carers, resulting in fewer opportunities for the development of language, social skills and emotional understanding."

2. Affects social skills

Studies show that excessive screen usage can also lead to problems in social-emotional development.

Gill agrees, telling us; "Social skills do take a hit. Children need to interact with others to learn how to communicate effectively and understand social cues. If they're constantly on a screen, they might struggle with these skills. It can also impact their emotional well-being, leading to issues like anxiety and lower self-esteem."

3. Impacts emotional understanding

Children who spend too much time in front of a screen can develop poor social skills and low emotional intelligence well into adolescence, research has found.

Gill tells us; "Too much screen time can also lead to a range of other issues. For one, it can delay cognitive development. Children learn best through hands-on activities and face-to-face interactions. When they spend too much time on screens, they miss out on crucial learning experiences that help their brains grow." Jeanine agrees telling us; "Screentime stimulates the senses and so too much can lead to sensory overload which can become overwhelming and dysregulating.

"The adjustment from sensory stimulating screentime to ‘normal’ home and school life can be a difficult transition for some children and young people to make. This can result in depleted attention and poor focus, which can manifest as explosive or aggressive behaviour." Mum of one, Steph admits she recognises this; "my son's beahviour falls off a cliff if he is on a screen for too long, and his sass sky rockets. It's hard for me to remember that it's not his fault, it's mine for letting him stay on if for too long. Those screens are made to be addictive of course he'll struggle to turn it off, as an adult I'm there to help him do that."

4. Linked to obesity

Studies show that excess TV viewing in childhood predicts risk for obesity well into adulthood. For example, kids who have TV sets in their rooms are more likely to gain excess weight when compared to those who don't have TVs. Furthermore, marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages also contributes to obesity.

"Physical health is another concern," says Gill. "More screen time often means less physical activity, which is essential for healthy growth and development. Children need to move around, play, and explore their environment. This not only helps their bodies but also boosts their mental health and mood. Balancing screen time with other activities is key. Encourage your children to play outside, get creative, and socialize with friends. These activities help them develop important skills, boost creativity, and stay healthy. Technology is great for learning and fun, but it shouldn't replace real-life experiences.

5. Affects sleep

Sleep is critical for a child's growth and development, and excessive screen time can disrupt sleep patterns. The blue light emitted by screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep. This disruption can make it difficult for children to fall asleep and stay asleep, leading to insufficient rest.

Many studies have shown a link between screentime and poor sleep, and research suggests that children are particularly vulnerable. Gill says; "Sleep is incredibly important for children, as studies show that poor quality sleep can affect everything from their mental, physical, social, and emotional development."

Kids looking at social media

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Jeanine explains; "Screens emit blue light, which reduces the body’s production of the hormone melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy as natural daylight fades. Blue light also reduces the amount of rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep which is needed for cognitive functioning."

Gill agrees, and shares her biggest tip; "Keep screen time a daytime activity, especially for younger children, and avoid it late into the evening. Screen time, especially at night, can have a big impact on this because the blue light from screens disrupts melatonin production, the hormone that helps us sleep. To help your children wind down before bed, put away the screens well before bedtime. Instead, try a relaxing routine with bath time and reading in a dimly lit room. This helps children settle down and get ready for a good night's sleep."

6. Leads to depression and anxiety

A study from Bristol University showed that regular and lengthy use of screens can lead to depression and anxiety. Young people who were using their computers more had increased levels of anxiety and depression, but this may have been related to the amount of time people were spending alone. Watching TV or texting had very little association with poor mental health.

In older children, screen time has been linked to obesity, sleep problems, depression and anxiety, Jeanine tells us; "Gaming has been associated with higher depression and anxiety scores in adolescents, and lower levels of emotional understanding in boys. Scrolling between different media content (media multitasking) has also been found to have a negative impact on executive functioning and working memory in adolescents."

However, Jeanine warns that research findings should be read with caution and not taken out of context; "[The warnings] suggest correlations rather than cause and effect. The content of screentime and the individual child’s age and stage of development should always be considered alongside the quantity of screentime."

What's a healthy amount of screen time?

After speaking to so many experts we're not convinced that there's a known answer for that just yet. We do believe though that people need to have a strategy to avoid using their phones and laptops so much that becomes an all day-and-into-the-night habit. If you have no way to avoid using your devices before going to bed, you can use filters on the devices that can reduce the amount of blue light they give off.

How does screen time impact a teen's ability to study?

Excessive screen time can significantly impede a child's ability to concentrate and excel academically. Digital devices are designed to be engaging, often leading to prolonged use that can detract from study time. When children are frequently engaged with screens, they may struggle to focus on their homework or school projects. This constant distraction can lead to decreased academic performance.

Research indicates that children who spend more than two hours a day on screens tend to have lower grades and less interest in academic pursuits. The blue light emitted from screens can also interfere with their circadian rhythms, making it harder for them to get adequate sleep. A well-rested child is more attentive and better able to absorb new information, whereas a tired child may find it difficult to concentrate in class.

Moreover, multitasking with screens—such as texting while studying or checking social media during a homework session—can fragment a child's attention. This divided focus reduces the efficiency of their learning and comprehension skills. Educational activities conducted on screens, while beneficial in moderation, do not substitute for hands-on learning and real-world experiences that are critical for cognitive development.

To mitigate these issues, parents can encourage screen-free study periods, establish tech-free zones in the house, and promote traditional learning methods like reading books and solving puzzles. By doing so, children can develop better study habits and enhance their academic performance.

What age is appropriate to introduce screens?

Introducing screens at an appropriate age is crucial for healthy development. In the UK, guidelines suggest that children under 18 months should avoid screens entirely, except for video chatting. For toddlers aged 18 to 24 months, screen time could be limited to high-quality programming, and parents should watch together to help them understand what they are seeing.

For children aged 2 to 5 years, parents might want to limit screen time to one hour per day of high-quality content. At this age, children benefit from interactive and educational programs that encourage participation and learning.

Four children sat against a wall watching a variety of screens

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Parents should continue to co-view to provide context and foster understanding. School-aged children and teens can have more flexibility, but it's important to balance screen time with other activities. Encouraging physical play, reading, and family interactions can help ensure that screens do not dominate their time. According to UK statistics, excessive screen use among teenagers is associated with lower levels of physical activity, poorer mental health, and disrupted sleep patterns.

Overall, the key is moderation and supervision. By setting consistent boundaries and choosing age-appropriate content, parents can help their children develop a healthy relationship with technology.

How addictive are digital screens for kids?

Digital screens can be highly addictive for children, due in part to the design of many apps and games that aim to capture and retain attention. Features such as endless scrolling, notifications, and reward systems are engineered to keep users engaged for as long as possible. This can lead to excessive use and difficulty in self-regulating screen time.

Children, with their still-developing self-control and decision-making skills, are particularly vulnerable to screen addiction. They may exhibit signs of dependency, such as irritability when not using a device, neglecting other activities, and an inability to limit screen use even when it causes problems.

Parents can help prevent screen addiction by setting clear rules and limits on screen use, encouraging a variety of activities, and modeling healthy screen habits themselves. Open communication about the potential risks and benefits of screen time can also empower children to make healthier choices.

Six tips for parents to limit screen time

We covered reducing screen time in another article after we noticed just how much parents were in need of guidance on this subject. In our article 'How to reduce screen time' we speak to family therapist, Katie Rose who told us; "Smartphones have dominated our lives for too long. More recently, there has been a backlash against the explosion in the speed and availability of digital technology, and the impact that it's having on our young people. 77% of parents of primary school-age children back a smartphone ban for under 16's (Parentkind poll, March 2024). Movements like 'Smartphone free Childhood' have sprung up and are quickly amassing thousands of followers."

  1. Set Clear Boundaries: Establish specific rules for screen use, such as no screens during meals or before bedtime, and limit overall screen time based on age-appropriate guidelines.
  2. Create Screen-Free Zones: Designate certain areas of the home, like bedrooms and dining rooms, as screen-free to encourage other activities and family interactions.
  3. Encourage Alternative Activities: Promote activities that do not involve screens, such as outdoor play, reading, arts and crafts, and board games.
  4. Model Healthy Habits: Children often mimic their parents' behavior, so it's important for parents to also practice balanced screen use and demonstrate healthy habits.
  5. Use Educational Content: When screen time is allowed, choose high-quality, educational content that engages and teaches, rather than purely entertains.
  6. Communicate and Educate: Discuss with children the importance of balanced screen use and the potential impacts of excessive screen time, fostering an understanding and mindful approach to technology.

Screentime and social media are a huge conversation among parents, with many wondering how to reduce screentime for their kids and the whole family, and just how bad social media is for kids? (spoiler, it isn't good, we checked with experts, and not even the creators of social media let their kids use it which speaks volumes.)

Former nanny and child development expert Kirsty Ketley spoke to us for another article we wrote on how to spot if a child has had too much screen time. In this article, Kirsty explained: "Screen addiction can significantly impact a child's mental health - they can be affected by things they see online, and they may start comparing themselves to others too. They can become irrational and moody, depressed and withdrawn. They may also stop wanting to hang out with friends in the real world and lose friendships. It can impact their school work, they may fall behind at school and start refusing to attend."

Our experts

woman with glasses looking at camera
Jeanine Connor (MBACP)

Jeanine is psychodynamic psychotherapist, clinical supervisor and training facilitator in private practice, as well as Editor of BACP Children, Young People & Families. She is the author of three books about children, adolescents and young adults. Her latest book, You’re Not My F*cking Mother and other things Gen Z say in therapy (PCCS Books, 2024) is out now. See also, upcoming article in BACP Therapy Today July/August 2024 written in response to media headlines about smartphone use among young people and the accompanying podcast.

blonde woman smiling at camera
Gill Baldemor

Gill has a level 7 Postgraduate Certificate in Education shares her in-depth knowledge of schools, the Early Years Foundation Stage and her wealth of expertise with practitioners, children and parents.

Gill brings over a decade of experience as a Qualified Teacher in nurseries and primary schools. Being the Foundation Stage Leader, alongside her class teacher role, she uses this experience and her attendance at a prestigious private girls’ school, to work closely with parents, offering workshops, personal conversation and the sharing of information that helps prepare children and parents for the important step to ‘Big School’.

Our content here at GoodToKnow is all about making it make sense for you as parents and carers. We get that you don’t want your kids to grow up too fast? Science says this parenting style is the way to go and asking your kid this question could do wonders for their self-esteem – here’s why, as well as why you shouldn't tease your child about having a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’, according to parenting experts.

Stephanie Lowe
Family Editor

Stephanie Lowe is Family Editor at GoodToKnow covering all things parenting, pregnancy and more. She has over 13 years' experience as a digital journalist with a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to all things family and lifestyle. Stephanie lives in Kent with her husband and son, Ted. Just keeping on top of school emails/fund raisers/non-uniform days/packed lunches is her second full time job.