Screen time for kids is a big issue right now! Everywhere you go, children are exposed to phones and TVs. There are even tablets marketed exclusively to children!

If you’re a parent who tries to avoid screen time for your kids, you know how exhausting it can get. TVs are everywhere you go: restaurants (why?!), Target, even some children’s clothing stores. And if you visit friends or family who keep their tv on all the time out of habit, it can be even more difficult to control exposure to screens.

So we get ground down and we give up.

Written with Tamra Carter of The Nurturing Parent.

You may already know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that there should be NO screen time for babies under two years. Children from 2-4 years old should only get up to one hour of screen time a day, and older children should have no more than two hours!

Baby with screen time

Despite these recommendations, many of us do not adhere to these guidelines. Electronic media such as TVs, phones, and tablets have become a central part of many people’s lives, so it can be difficult to ignore them completely. Many American children spend up to seven hours per day with electronic media. When you consider that a child should be sleeping about ten hours a night, that’s half of their waking hours!

But it’s important that we learn why screen time can be a problem, and that we learn alternatives for ourselves and our kids. So let’s jump in!

Screen time and children’s brains

We’ve all heard that screens can affect child development, but what exactly happens?

Several things, as it turns out. Here are just a few of the issues associated with excessive screen use in kids.

Screen time may impact language skills

In one study conducted with Korean children between the ages of 24-30 months of age, the more TV they watched, the more these children were at risk for language delays. This means that their knowledge and vocabulary is likely to be lower than that of other kids of the same age.

Screens may impact school readiness

Another study found that more TV viewing at 29 months of age was associated with lower school readiness at 65 months of age (“School readiness” both being in terms of social development and language/number literacy). These results are especially concerning, because they tell us that the amount of TV we let our children watch as toddlers impact them years later!

Screens lower creativity in children

While this effect is obvious for something like a TV show, it’s less obvious for a tablet that reads to a child. It’s just a story, right?

Believe it or not, letting a tablet read a story to a child is is very different from when mom or dad reads a story. When you read to your child, he has to process your voice into words and visualize complete pictures. Plus, the interaction between the two of you is fantastic for your child (and for you, too!)

Reading to your child is much better than letting a tablet read to him.

However, stories that are read from a tablet often result in “spoon-feeding” images, words, and pictures. So the tablet does the thinking for them!

Excessive screen time affects children’s brain structure

This study was related to older children, aged 9-10. The children in this group who had over seven hours of screen time a day had premature thinning of the cortex (the outermost layer of the brain that processes information from the senses). While the cortex naturally thins over time, this thinning is generally associated with aging. We don’t know yet what the long-term effects of this premature thinning, and it may be decades before we find out.

And remember, these are only the cognitive effects of screen time on kids. We haven’t even touched on the decreased motor skills, greater muscle weakness, and increased obesity risk that is related to excess screen use!

For more on the effects of screens on children, check out Tamra’s post.

What stops us as parents from limiting screen time?

We’ve all heard how screen time is damaging our kids’ brains and bodies, but we still keep letting our kids watch hours of TV or spend a lot of time on the iPad!

And I don’t say that to guilt you (and me), I say that to lead to this: if we know what triggers us to use screen time to pacify our kids, we’ll know when we’re most likely to use TV, iPads, or whatever our go-to electronic device is. And knowing our triggers gives us a chance to come up with more creative solutions in the future!

Here are some of the things that may keep us connected to screens for our kids:

1. We’re busy.

It’s true! Whether we work at home, work outside the home, or do childcare and homemaking full time, we’ve got a lot going on!

And it’s difficult to get things done with little ones underfoot. So we turn on the TV while we cook dinner (guilty as charged!), write that article, or whatever task we have to do.

2. We’re tired.

You’ve been at work all day, and before you can even get in the door, your children are asking to watch TV. And it gets exhausting to say “no” over and over.

Or maybe you’ve gone out to dinner with your partner and you just want some peace to enjoy a conversation while you wait for your meal. So you may let your child watch a video on your phone at the restaurant.

3. We feel like we’re out of options.

This can be especially true if you’re a single parent and/or live in an urban setting. In these cases, your child may be home alone, and you don’t want them wandering around outside. So it’s easiest (and maybe safest) to let them watch television all evening.

How do we avoid screen time?

Now that we’ve seen the triggers that make us turn to TV and tablets to entertain our kids, we can think of ways to work around the temptation!

For example, if you use TV so you can get some chores done, start getting your kids involved in clean-up. After all, giving them responsibility is better for them anyways. Let them sweep (I know, they’re going to do a bad job. It’s okay) or put away laundry.

RELATED: The only three family rules you need

If you let them watch TV while you’re cooking, let them do meal prep with you! I know, it’s more time-consuming, but it’s actually great practice for them, and one day they’ll be able to cook for you instead! Your child can start “helping” as early as a year and a half old.

Child helping mother with chores

RELATED: How your child can help with meal prep (tasks by age)

If you’re using a phone or tablet at a restaurant to keep the peace while you wait for food, start bringing a coloring book (many places provide a coloring sheet with activities anyways). If children get whiny because they’re hungry, try bringing a cheese stick or some crackers for them to munch on while they wait for their meal to arrive.

And if you’re turning on the TV simply because your kids are whiny and you just want some freakin’ peace and quiet (also guilty of this), take them outside. Just last weekend, my children were starting to whine and argue, and it was getting out of hand. I could feel myself getting really stressed and about to lose it. So instead, I just said, “Get dressed, we’re going outside!” They happily complied, and everyone was in a better mood after we got back in.

Alternatives to screen time for kids

And of course, good old-fashioned playing pretend and playing with toys is always a great option. You might have to get them started with some ideas, but a lot of times if you can act playful and get your kids in the right headspace, they’ll start playing independently, leaving you free to do what you need to do.

RELATED: Toys that encourage free play for children

Should my children just never look at a screen?!

To be clear, not all screen time is bad. Some studies suggest that the effects of screen time are content dependent. According to a 2017 study, playing action-based video games can improve visual attention skills (which is awesome, because video games are fun).

There are also TV shows that can help children increase their vocabulary. For instance, one study showed that watching “Dora the Explorer” resulted in 13.3 more vocabulary words acquired compared to children who did not watch this show. There is evidence that Sesame Street (the only show based in best practice for child development at the time) had a positive impact on school performance for children in the 70s.

Use common sense when choosing programming for your young children. If a show is designed to teach positive values like cooperation and empathy, that’s great! If it’s educational and designed by writers and producers with a child development background, that’s a good sign too!

In addition, co-viewing shows with your children is a great idea. That way, you know exactly what they’re seeing. In addition, you’ll increase your interaction with your child – ask questions like what your child thinks will happen next. If you see behavior modeled that you don’t want in your home, ask questions about that too! “Wow, that character looks really sad. Why do you think she feels that way? What could the other character have done differently?”

Father and daughter watching TV together and discussing the show

When you have these conversations with your children, you can help them make connections while building empathy and social skills.

Conclusions on screen time for kids

We’ve discussed the negative effects of screen time on children, as well as alternatives to using a TV, tablet, or phone to distract your children. This information isn’t meant to give you something else to worry about on top of everything else; it’s meant to be empowering! So go out there and spend some time connecting with your kids. Happy parenting!

More about Tamra

Tamra Carter is a professor who teaches child development and lifespan development courses. She is the mother of a three-year old little girl and wife of a football coach. Tamra helps others by sharing her knowledge and passion about child development! Find her at The Nurturing Parent.