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Ask parents, and most of them will tell you that during pandemic lockdowns, limits on screen time went out the window. Many families relied on technology simply to make it through the day, with kids left on screens for everything from school to socializing with friends and family to entertainment.

Now, as Dave McGinn reports, a study conducted by Canadian researchers and published last month in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that children’s screen time, defined in the study as any screens used for non-school purposes, remains higher than before the pandemic, suggesting kids have been acclimatized to more time online.

But, says Andre Plamondon, a researcher at Laval University and co-author of the study: “It’s not all just about how much time but also, what are they doing with that time?”

Here’s what to know about screen time and negative side effects, along with some expert tips for setting clear boundaries with kids.

What is considered screen time - and has it changed?

Not all time spent in front of screens is bad, experts say, but carefully considering a child’s dependence on technology is important.

Excessive screen time – more than the Canadian Paediatric Society’s guidelines – has become the norm in many households, and that should worry parents, says Mark Tremblay, director of healthy active living and obesity research at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

“That’s the stuff that gets concerning to me, is when we normalize a biologically and sociologically abnormal routine,” Dr. Tremblay says.

But the quality of the screen time is worth considering, says Victoria Talwar, a professor in the department of educational and counselling psychology at McGill University. For example, she says, a child reading a book with her grandparents over Zoom or connecting with friends over social media shouldn’t be considered bad screen time.

How much screen time is okay for kids?

Under the Canadian Paediatric Society’s guidelines, updated in November, 2022, children 0 to 2 should spend no time on screens, with exceptions for events such as the occasional video chat with relatives or virtual story times.

For kids two to five years old, the previous limit of one hour of screen time a day was relaxed to allow for interactive screen time, such as educational games or family movie nights.­­­­­ The society recommends limiting sedentary screen time to an hour or less a day for that age group, ensuring it is not a routine part of child care, and avoiding screens at least an hour before bedtime.

For children older than five, screen time should be limited to less than two hours a day.

In 2019, the organization suggested that parents should make a family media plan and stick to it. They also recommended discouraging media multitasking, especially during homework time; obtaining passwords to ensure kids are using digital media safely; and, whenever possible, watching digital media with children.

How to set limits on screen time

Think life/screen balance

Sit down with your kids to come up with a plan to find more balance between screen time and time spent on other activities (like time in nature, with other people or exercising). If they ask for more time with screens, ask them what else they have done that day.

Model good behaviour

Create clear guidelines for screen-free zones and time periods. And be mindful that children will model their parents’ behaviours, including how they see them engaging with screens.

Start with a no-screen rule for bedrooms and at meal times, when reading with your child or when doing things together as a family. Turn off screens when no one is using them, including background TV. The CPS guidelines report that background TV has been shown to reduce the quality and amount of interaction between parents and children, and can distract children from play.

Make sure your kids know the limits are in place so it doesn’t feel like an arbitrary imposition.

Let them be bored

Boredom can breed ideas and creativity and encourages kids to exercise their imaginations. Avoid automatically defaulting to screen-based activities, having television on in the background or turning to YouTube. It will take time and energy to reduce screen use, but, in time your kids will find other things to do.

Dr. Talwar advises parents to create “digital curfews” and have shared activities, such as board games, replace screen time. This structure and predictability make it less likely children will balk at having to get off screens.

Talk to kids about toxic tech

Speak to them about how the kind of tech they consume affects the way they feel and behave. For older kids, engaging negatively on social media, sexting, constantly looking for online validation from peers and cyberbullying are all examples of toxic tech and need to be dealt with firmly.

Practise good sleep hygiene

Avoid using screens for at least one hour before bedtime and keep all screens out of your child’s bedroom as they interfere with sleep.

Consider requiring your children to charge their devices outside of their bedrooms at night.

Create a habit with other activities

Make screen-free activities – like reading, outdoor play and crafts – a regular part of your family’s life.

  • Encourage unplugged, unstructured playtime.
  • Discourage use of media entertainment during homework.
  • Consider using apps that control the length of time a child can use a device.

It’s also important to be mindful of “technoference”: This happens when phones and other devices get in the way of daily life. When adults spend too much time on their devices, children may behave negatively to get attention.

What are the negative side effects of too much screen time?

Excessive, purposeless screen time is linked to less sleep; delays in language, social and emotional development; and lower physical activity.

A 2019 study found that toddlers and preschoolers who spent large amounts of time in front of televisions, computers and other digital devices were less likely to reach various milestones for communication skills, motor skills and problem-solving by age five.

“We’re seeing that screen time is creating some disparities in children’s development over time,” said lead author Dr. Sheri Madigan, assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Calgary.

The CPS guidelines say parents should first prioritize their kids’ sleep (nine to 12 hours a night, depending on age), physical activity (at least an hour of the vigorous kind daily) and time with friends and family, including screen-free meals.

If parents manage to achieve those goals, their children won’t have much time left for screens, says Michelle Ponti, a London, Ont., pediatrician who chairs the CPS’s digital health task force.

“Screens aren’t going anywhere,” she said. “So the number one thing that parents can do is prioritize – prioritize all the things in our lives that we know lead to good health.”