If digital tablets, TVs, computers and smartphones have become a little too entrenched in your children’s lives over the pandemic, now is a good time to start healthier screen habits, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society.
In a position statement published Thursday, the national association of pediatricians provided updated guidelines on the use of screens for children under age 5, encouraging parents and caregivers to not only limit the amount of time preschoolers spend in front of screens but to be involved when they do.
While the society’s advice remains largely unchanged from its previous guidelines in 2017, the new statement recognizes families’ increased reliance on screens.
“We’ve all come to use screens a little bit too much, especially in family life, through the pandemic,” said lead author Michelle Ponti, a pediatrician in London, Ont., and chair of the pediatric society’s digital health task force.
The aim is not to make parents feel guilty, she explained, but to spur them to take stock of their children’s use, since excessive purposeless screen time is linked to less sleep, delays in language, social and emotional development and lower physical activity.
“What are the educational uses or the fun family movie nights or whatever? ... And then, what is the mindless idling, purposeless stuff that we can easily sort of scale back on?” Dr. Ponti said.
According to the guidelines, screen time is not recommended for children under age 2, apart from video-chatting with caring adults. For 2- to 5-year-olds, the society recommends limiting sedentary screen time to an hour or less per day, ensuring it is not a routine part of child care, and avoiding screens at least an hour before bedtime.
The statement offers advice based on four principles: minimizing screen time; mitigating the risks associated with screen use, including by being present and viewing media together; being mindful about its use; and modelling healthy habits, like turning devices off during family time.
The pediatric society’s guidelines for older children, published in 2019, were not updated. Those guidelines do not recommend screen time limits, but offer advice such as monitoring for signs of problems, including screen use that interferes with sleep and off-line physical activity.
A University of Calgary-led systematic review and meta-analysis, published earlier this month in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, found screen use by children, 18 and under, jumped after the start of the pandemic by 84 minutes a day, or 52 per cent, to 246 minutes a day. A separate meta-analysis, published in February in the same journal, showed even before the pandemic, only about a quarter of children younger than age 2 and a third of children, ages 2 to 5, were meeting screen-time guidelines.
Particularly during early COVID-19 waves, some parents relied on screens to keep children occupied while trying to work, said psychology professor Sheri Madigan, Canada research chair in determinants of child development at the University of Calgary, who co-authored both studies.
“Which is actually completely understandable; we were all just trying to survive,” Dr. Madigan said.
But long durations of screen time without adult involvement create missed opportunities for the learning and development of language and social skills, she said.
By removing screen use and replacing it with enriching interactions, children may be able to catch up, she said. But, she said, “will they catch up all the way? I don’t think we have research to know whether that will be the case or not.”