Screen Time Background and Evidence
Introducing Theme 4: Power Off and Play!
During Theme 4, Healthy Kids Community Challenge communities will be working to encourage children and families to build a balanced day that is not filled with screen time.
‘Screen time’ is the time spent using a screen-based device, such as a smartphone, tablet, computer or television1. Not all screen time is unhealthy. Screens can offer an important way to learn and communicate in school and at work. They can also be used in an active way – like playing tennis, soccer, baseball or other sports games on a device.
Screens can also be used for recreational purposes such as watching movies and playing games. Kids may be sitting, reclining or lying down the whole time they are using their device. This is called sedentary screen time and many children are getting too much of it. This could interfere with and take time away from healthy activities in their day. It could even affect their health.
The focus of Power Off and Play! is on minimizing children’s recreational and sedentary screen time. This theme helps children and families build a balanced day that includes:
- Staying within recommended screen time limits
- Putting screens away during important times of day (sleep time and meal and snack time)
- Replacing some screen time with other activities (physical activity, social interaction, and fun and educational activities)
Why focus on screen time
Screen time affects many aspects of children’s health. While research on screen time is still emerginga, it suggests that screen time can harm their development and physical and psychosocial health.
aFindings are based on very low- to moderate-quality evidence.
- Early development: Higher screen time is linked to poor cognitive development, language development and attention skills in the early years2.
- Physical health: Higher screen time is linked to lower levels of physical fitness, unhealthy weights and higher risks of cardio-metabolic disease (e.g. blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin)3,4.
- Psychosocial health: Higher screen time is linked to behavioural issues, lower self-esteem and lower psychological well-being5,6,7.
As you will read in this fact sheet, screen time is also a concern because it can interfere with and take time away from healthy activities in a child’s day.
Three ways to address screen time
While research on screen time is still emerging, it supports minimizing screen time as part of a balanced day in three key ways.
1. Stay within recommended screen time limits
Health and health promotion experts in Canada recommend limiting children’s exposure to screens. This can reduce the associated health risks and promote positive health outcomes.
Less than a quarter of children across Canada meet the national screen time guidelines. The 2016 ParticipACTION Report Card gave Canada a failing grade for sedentary behaviour. This is now an important area of focus across the country12. In Ontario, parents report that girls average over 2.5 hours and boys average over 3 hours of screen time each day13. In fact, the percentage of children in Ontario who meet the guidelines for screen time is low14:
2. Put screens away during important times of day
Screen time can interfere with important daily routines, making it difficult for children to stay healthy. In particular, it’s vital to power off screens for sleep time and meal time.
The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends young children avoid screens for at least one hour before bed time16. Some researchers recommend removing all screens from children’s bedrooms17.
Sound, uninterrupted sleep is important for children’s health. Studies show that longer sleep duration is clearly linked to a number of benefits in children from age 5-17:
- Healthy weight
- Better emotional control
- Greater academic achievement
- Improved quality of life/well-being
Shorter sleep duration is linked to negative physical and mental health outcomes18. For this reason, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology’s 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth recommends the following sleep guidelines, along with consistent bed and wake-up times19,20:
Having screens in the bedroom appears to be a popular trend. More than one-third of children up to age 8 and almost half of 8-12 year olds in the U.S. have a TV in their bedroom21, 22. A growing body of evidence shows that having screens, particularly TVs, in children’s bedrooms is linked with poor sleeping habits and poor sleep quality23, 24. This may be due to the bright lights and physiological/mental stimulation from screens, which can make it hard for children to fall asleep25.
Meal and snack time
Health experts such as the Canadian Pediatric Society recommend screen-free family meals27. Where and what children eat and drink are important to their health. Screen time can prompt children to eat unhealthy foods. On TV and the internet, children see lots of ads for food and beverages that are high in fat, sodium or sugar. These include cakes, cookies, ice cream and cereal28. Researchb shows that during or shortly after being exposed to ads for unhealthy foods, children eat more and prefer less healthy food and beverages29.
In fact, children who routinely eat meals while watching TV eat fewer vegetables and fruit, and more pizzas, snack foods and sodas30,31,32. Research further shows that screen time is linked to mindless overeating even when there are no food ads33,34. Eating meals away from screens and eating meals as a family, on the other hand, contribute to healthy eating in children. They eat more vegetables and fruit and drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages35,36,37. A diet rich in vegetables and fruit may prevent certain types of cancer38 and heart disease39. This kind of diet is also linked to healthy weights and a lower risk of obesity40,41. Canada’s Food Guide recommends children aged 2-13 years eat 4-6 servings of vegetables and fruit each day42.
3. Replace some screen time with other activities
When children spend time in front of screens, they have less time free for other healthy activities. A balanced day should be filled with learning, physical activity, social interaction and fun activities.
Health experts such as the Canadian Pediatric Society recommend we give kids ways to replacescreen time with active outdoor play44,45.Physical activity has many health benefits.Researchc suggests that it promotes physical,psychological/social and cognitive health in children aged 5-17 years46. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology’s 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth in this age group recommends a mix of physical activities.This includes:
- Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity adding up to at least 60 minutes a day
- Activities to strengthen muscle and bone at least 3 days a week
- A mix of structured and unstructured light physical activities for several hours each day47,48
Some forms of screen time, such as video games involving sports or dance games, give kids a chance to be physically active49,50. But screen time can take time away from physical activity. Screen time is often sedentary. It uses low energy and is done while sitting, reclining or lying down51,52. Research shows that time on screen activities (e.g. TV, computer, video game console) is linked to lower levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity53.
b,c Findings are based on very low- to moderate-quality evidence.
Health experts such as the Canadian Pediatric Society recommend giving face-to-face interactions and family time priority over screen time54.
Media and social media use can have a range of social benefits for children. It enables communication across distances. It promotes community participation and engagement. It connects kids to culture and enhances their access to valuable support networks. It also fosters connectedness55. This may be especially important for children facing social isolation.
Real-life social interactions are also good for children. Parent-child interactions are especially important for children’s health because they help children:
- Build emotional connections
- Develop language
- Build mental and social skills
- Regulate their emotions56
Screen time, however, may take time away from important real-life social interactions. This can greatly affect a child’s social well-being. In a U.S. survey, more than a quarter of parents indicated that media (e.g. video games, smartphones, tablets) contributes to them spending less time together as a family57. A large Canadian study found that increased TV time in early childhood is linked to experiencing victimization, social withdrawal and antisocial behaviour towards fellow students later on in middle school58. With social media in particular, there may also be concerns about cyber-bullying. There may also be negative impacts on relationships and on overall life-satisfaction.
Limiting the amount and content of children’s screen use, including social media use, may improve kids’ social interactions. One study found that substituting high quality pro-social and educational programming for violent programming can positively affect children’s social competence and behaviour59. Another study found that after spending five days at an outdoor camp where screens were not allowed, children improve their ability to recognize nonverbal emotion cues60.
Fun and educational activities
Health experts such as the Canadian Pediatric Society recommend choosing healthy alternatives to screen time such as reading and play61.
In a school setting, screens can be used for learning and can enhance the student experience. However, too much recreational screen time may mean that children lose out on opportunities to learn from other activities like playing and reading62. It’s important that parts of the school day, like recess and before and after school care, are filled with screen-free activities.
Play supports a child’s development because it contributes to cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being63. Play helps children develop creativity and imagination. It builds confidence and resiliency. Children learn how to work with others and gain independence64.
However, passive entertainment such as watching TV or playing computer/video games may be taking time away from children’s free and active play65. Studies show that TV viewing for babies disrupts their play66. One study found that even when a TV is on in the background, it reduces how long young children play and reduces their focus during play67.
In Canada, half of children aged 6-8 years read books for fun between 5-7 days a week. As they get older, reading for fun starts to be replaced by screen activities such as going online for fun, watching videos, playing games or using apps on electronic devices, and using social media sites and apps68. While it is now possible to read on screens rather than in print, children are not likely to do so. They tend to use multi-purpose mobile devices, such as tablets, to play games, watch videos, or use apps, rather than to read e-books69.
There is also evidence that the home environment influences children’s reading habits. One study found that children with a TV in their bedroom are less likely to read70. A Canadian survey found that children who read often tend to have more books in the home than those who read less71.
How communities can address children’s screen time
There are many reasons why children engage in recreational and sedentary screen time. So, strategies need to be comprehensive. It works best to use a range of approaches across different settings. Studies suggest interventions to reduce screen time are more likely to succeed if they:
- Are part of a comprehensive approach (e.g. educational, behavioural, environmental, social support strategies, etc.)72,73,74. Combining actions that address a broad range of influencing factors are more likely to produce positive results.
- Invite parents to be role models75,76,77,78.
- Give children opportunities to choose how to replace their screen time79.