Screen time – watching television, DVDs, or using other electronic media devices such as mobile phones and iPads – is now a major part of our daily lives. It is virtually impossible to avoid exposure to these technologies. Yet that is exactly what the Department of Health and Ageing in Australia recommends for children younger than two years of age.
This recommendation is based on guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1999, which it now says could be obsolete in the digital age. The academy did an update in 2011 but the recommendations remained largely unchanged.
There is no question that excessive screen time can have negative impacts on children’s sleep as well as development more generally. But is there sufficient evidence that screen time should be completely eradicated in this age group, as these guidelines indicate?
The Australian guidelines make several claims to support this recommendation. One is that screen time may leave less time for active play and social interaction with others. The other main claim is that there is no evidence that health, intellectual or language benefits are gained from screen-based activities in children under two years of age.
Therefore, with the possibility of adverse effects, combined with no benefits from screen time, the advice of no screen time for little ones would seem to make a lot of sense. But the situation is not that simple, and the evidence is not that clear.
There are some important aspects of these guidelines that bring into question the recommendations being made, particularly in Australia. Firstly, screen time and media use were discouraged for those under two years of age, which is in contrast to the very strict instruction of no screen time at all proposed in Australia.
This is an important distinction; discouraging and limiting electronic media use is a much more attainable goal than completely eradicating it from children’s lives.