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Can I watch something?

Updated: Jul 2

Summertime! As we get excited for warm weather, time outside, and some relaxing, we also might be thinking about free time, and how many times our children will ask the highly anticipated question “Can I watch something?" - the question that, at times, seems to come frequently and evoke many, many (have I said many yet) emotions and thoughts in us. If you're feeling worried, you are not alone! One study in 2020 found that most parents (71%) are concerned about screen use. Almost 90% of parents with children ages 5-11 shared their children have watched videos on YouTube. We have so many questions about screen time. What is the magic number of shows we should allow? What video games are too intense for my child? What are the long term effects of our lax screen time rules? The most difficult answer to these questions is that "we don't know as much as we need to." There's no manual that tells us what to do and when. Then to throw even more into the mix, COVID happened and changed the game. The good news is that there are a lot of studies being done to try to answer those questions. If you're a busy parent, but eager for a summary, feel free to skip to the end. We've got you covered.

Before diving into research, I would like to echo Dr. Kate regarding what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and World Health Organization (WHO) recommend about screen use per age range. I also would like to avoid therapist jail (is it in the same place as psychologist jail Dr. Kate?). AAP suggests avoiding any screen use for 12-24 months old and one hour for 2-5 year olds. WHO recommends 1 hour or less for 1-5 year olds and no use for children under one year.

More and more research is being done on screen use and current researchers are looking at impact of screen use on brain development as well as cognitive, behavioral, emotional and social development (yay for learning!). Research is also looking at how screen use effects kiddos over time and the changes and negative effects that develop over time with consistently high screen time. Below I share some of the research that has been done and give options on where to go for continued learning.

In the first few years of life, children’s brains are taking in so much information and building their foundation for the future. Their little brains are active and trying to figure out this crazy thing we call life. Children learn and develop most effectively through unstructured and interactive play - whether it is how to play with others or learning what happens when you kick this round thing called a ball -they are constantly taking in information about themselves and their bodies. A recent study found that younger children can have a harder time translating 2D images (screens) to 3D images (real life); therefore, they might not learn as much from screens unless an adult is present to facilitate learning (Cerniglia, Cimino & Massimo, 2020).  

Another study found that screen use at 24 months was associated with lower executive functioning at 36 months (McHare & Colleagues, 2020). More research is needed though to understand if lower executive function is directly due to screen use or missing out on learning time while watching a screen. However, preschoolers and older children may benefit from online educational programs that promote executive functioning use (the learning brain).  Programs that are interactive and allow for creativity may be most effective to promote development in children. There is a big difference between learning from a screen and being captivated by one.

Research has also begun to try using brain scans to measure functioning in different areas of the brain. One study found less development of white brain matter in preschool age children with higher screen use. White brain matter is associated with language and literary skills (Hutton & Colleagues, 2020). Again more research is needed to tease out causal effects and what else might be impacting the lower development of white brain matter.

It is also important to look at screen use on mental health, including behaviors and emotions, as children grow and engage with the world in new ways. Many older children are using social media and screens for entertainment, self-expression, and social interaction. While access to social media can help kiddos find others they relate to and explore their creativity (hey Pinterest), there are many things to consider. What are teens watching on screens and are they developmentally able to process what they are seeing? High screen use has been linked to increased levels of anxiety as well as decreased ability to regulate oneself.

Research has also shown a surge of adrenaline while playing video games as kids work hard to win the level, defeat the opponent or crush the dragon (I might not be the most updated on all the goals of video games; if anyone has a PowerPoint on Fortnite please send my way). The longer kiddos spend in that heightened state the more difficult it is for children to regulate themselves and get back to baseline. They might appear fidgety, angry, aggressive, and less focused. Then, cue the cortisol to help manage the stress. If it continuously floods the brain, the brain says “Ohh I need to aways be alert, there is a lot going on here.” High levels of cortisol for an extended period of time can alter executive functioning and impact brain development (Device Detox).

From a social development perspective, there seems to be generally less studies so far. Anecdotally, we know that children and teens (adults too, of course) often utilize screens for social connections and play games with their friends. We also know that sometimes when friends get together and hang out, they spend a lot of their time on their phones (in a way that mimics parallel play - when two children are paying in parallel, versus with each other). And, it's less likely that you have to call a friend’s house and navigate speaking to their parent when they answer the call. There are many examples of this change, and it seems likely that those small interactions and missed opportunity to learn social skills can add up. 

So, where does this leave us? There's a lot of research being done right now, and any study looking at long term effects is going to take a while to complete. However, we are starting to learn more and more about the impact screen time makes on critical areas of development. Studies have found connections to higher screen time use and lower levels of white brain matter (important in language and literacy), higher levels of baseline cortisol (stress hormone) and decreased ability to regulate emotions. An important question for future research may be to better understand the mechanisms behind the findings - meaning, is the issue the time spent on screens, instead of on an activity that may help a child make developmental strides, that's the problem. Or, is it the direct effect of the screen on your brain? Or, both? My money is on both.

Along with the research many resources are being created to help caregivers navigate conversations with their children about screen use. Below are some resources and places to check out more research. You are all doing great and please remember to be kind to yourselves because parenting is no easy task, let alone negotiating with terrorists about extra screen time. It is a wild ride filled with so much joy, excitement AND many challenges with no set “here, this is how you do it manual.”

Let’s hope this weather stays nice soon so we can head outside and get some Vitamin D, without screens!


·      The Family Media Plan through the American Academy of Pediatric allows families to talk about screen use and develop some “rules” around it:  

·      Common Sense Education

·      Healthy

·      American Academy of Pediatrics

·      Books:

·      Digital Detox by Molly DeFrank

·      Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras, PhD


Cerniglia, L., & Cimino, S., & Ammaniti, M. (2020). What are the effects of screen time on emotion regulation and academic achievements? A three-wave longitudinal study on children from 4 to 8 years of age. Journal of Early Childhood Research. 19. 1-16. DOI: 10.1177/1476718X20969846.


Hutton J.S., Dudley J., Horowitz-Kraus T., DeWitt T, & Holland S.K. (2020). Associations Between Screen-Based Media Use and Brain White Matter Integrity in Preschool-Aged Children. JAMA Pediatr. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.0529.


McHarg G., Ribner A.Da, Devine R.T. & Hughes C. (2020). Screen Time and Executive Function in Toddlerhood: A Longitudinal Study. Front. Psychol. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.570392


Muppalla, S.M., Vuppalapati, S., Pulliahgaru,A.R., and Sreenivasulu, H. (2023). Effects of Excessive Screen Time on Child Development: An Updated Review and Strategies for Management. doi:10.7759/cureus.40608


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