Disconnect the Tech: Impact of Screen Time on Development

Jun 15 , 2019

Screen time usage in children is at an all-time high.  Studies are finding that 2 and 3-year-olds are using screens between 2-3 hours per day, 8 to 18 years old have an average usage of more than 7 hours per day, and often teenagers are using more than 11 hours per day.  This screen time can be detrimental to a child’s development. 

What Does the Research Say About the Impact of Screen Time on Children?

Decreased Ability to Self-Regulate and Attend

  • When children are having “meltdowns” or are bored, it is common for parents to use screens to distract or calm their child. This can become problematic in the long-term when screens are used as the primary way children learn to cope, regulate, and calm themselves. 
  • A study of 2-year-old children found that the children who had greater exposure to screens had significantly decreased ability to self-regulate their emotions compared to their same-aged peers who were exposed to less screens.1

Impacted Social Skills and Language Development

  • When using screens, children do not need to use language to ask for desired objects, therefore language can be delayed.  A study of toddlers found that when children were exposed to more screen time they had 5.5 times the odds of low scores in communication compared to children exposed to less.2   
  • It was also found that preteens that spent five days at a nature camp without access to screens had significant improvement on their ability to read nonverbal emotional cues, which is a vital skill for social interaction.3 

Decreased Physical Activity and Impacted Development

  • Screen time results in a significant decrease in the amount of physical activity children engage in.  There is a significant correlation between screen time usage and increased body mass index among children.4.  
  • The sedentary nature of screen time decreases the amount of time children are spending practicing the development of motor skills through trial and error and repetition.  A study showed children who had higher levels of screen time at 24 and 36 months were associated with poorer performance on developmental screenings at 36 months, demonstrating significant delay in developmental milestones.5

Impacted Sleep

  • The blue light that screens give off has been shown to directly impact natural sleep rhythms.  Studies demonstrate that increased screen time results in shortened duration of sleep and delayed ability to fall asleep.6

Decreased Ability to Delay Gratification

  • Research found that preschoolers who were frequent mobile device users display a lower capacity to delay gratification as opposed to their peers.7. Screens give immediate gratification because all desired objects are at their fingertips. 
  • The ability to delay gratification is a crucial skill in order to develop long term goal planning and persisting through failures.

The American Academy of Pediatrics Current Recommendations:

No screen time for children under 2 years

For ages 2-5 years, it should be limited to 1 hour/day of high quality programming.

For ages 6 and older, screen time should be limited. 

How Can I Reduce My Children’s Screen Time?  

  • Set specific rules about when, how, and what type of screen time the child can access based on their age and development.
  • Co-view screens and co-play electronic games with your child.  This allows you to ask questions and highlight information to help them understand and generalize the information they are receiving. 
  • Teach children that screens are a privilege and model that through your own screen time. For example, first I finish doing my work (cooking dinner, cleaning, etc.) then I get 20 minutes of screen time.
  • Incorporate their screen time interests in other non-screen ways.  For example, use their favorite characters in pretend play or read books about their favorite characters.
  • Be prepared for a meltdown by preparing them with the screen time expectations ahead of time and have alternatives ready (fidgets, games, preferred toys, busy baskets, etc.).
  • Be strategic about when screens are used to give you the most benefit (ex: when you are cooking dinner, trying to put your other child to sleep, etc.).


  1. Radesky, J. S., Silverstein, M., Zuckerman, B., & Christakis, D. A. (2014).  Infant self-regulation and early childhood media exposure.  Pediatrics, 133(5), e1172-e1178. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-2367
  2. Duch, H. Fisher, E. M., Ensar, I., Font, M., Harrington, A., Taromino, C., Tip, J., & Rodriguez, C.  (2013). Association of screen time use and language development in Hispanic toddlers: A cross-sectional and longitudinal study.  Clinical Pediatrics, 52(9), 857-865. doi: 10.1177/0009922813492881
  3. Uhls, Y. T., Michikan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, J., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. M. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 397-392. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.05.036
  4. O’Brien, W., Issartel, J., & Belton, S.  (2018).  Relationship between physical activity, screen time and weight status among young adolescents.  Sports, 6(3), 57.  doi: 10.3390/sports6030057
  5. Madigan, S., Brown, D., & Racine, N. (2019). Association between screen tie and children’s performance on a developmental screening test. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(3), 244-250.  doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5056
  6. Hale, L. & Guan, S. (2015). Screen time and sleep among school-aged children and adolescents: A systematic literature review.  Sleep Medicine Reviews, 21, 50-58.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2014.07.007
  7. Tom, T. C., Lawrence, A., & Choe, E. (2017).  Gratification Stratification: Amount of screen time is associated with children’s delay of gratification.  Poster session presented at the UC Davis Undergraduate Research Conference, Davis, CA.