How Much is Too Much? Guidelines on Screen Time for Children from Reach Out and Read

A young boy engaged in watching a video on a computer

How Much is Too Much? Guidelines on Screen Time for Children from Reach Out and Read

One of the biggest challenges that many parents face when encouraging their children to read is competition from screens. Between television, computers, tablets, and smart phones, screens are everywhere in our lives. And they’re a powerful force, drawing children in with their bright colors, loud noises, and fun animation.

So, how do you set the balance for your children and your family? I had the chance to chat with Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and medical director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin. Dr. Navsaria, who also has a master’s degree as a children’s librarian, frequently writes and speaks on the issue of screen time.

A father of two, he can be found on Facebook at and on Twitter @navsaria.

Q: In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics reaffirmed its decision to discourage screen time for children under two. Why do you think it’s important for parents to follow this recommendation?

A: It’s important to realize that these guidelines are designed to be relatively simple and straightforward because the many nuances involved in screen time are not only complicated to explain, but are also still slowly being worked out.  One of the things we’re seeing, however, is that young children do not truly learn from screens, no matter how well-designed or well-intentioned the screens may be.

One important developmental fact about young children that is not widely recognized is that infants and toddlers don’t recognize moving images on a screen as representing something “real.”  For example, a video recording of a person showing a young child how to do a task will not be recognized as the same person doing the exact same task “live,” in front of them.  The attraction of screens is most probably based more around movement, lights, and colors than anything else.  Somewhere between 18 and 30 months of age, however, a developmental shift seems to occur where children recognize that a person on a screen is a representation of an actual person doing something.

Additionally, brains are very “plastic” at this age; by exposing a child to a constant diet of media, one can create a baseline expectation for stimulation that goes on through life.  There’s a common perception that children need constant stimulation, reinforced by many of the toys available for young children.  However, children also need time to contemplate, explore, and problem solve, not just in the world of media, but the world around them.

Finally, there’s the sticky question of content: while we’d like to believe that young children are not being exposed to inappropriate content for their age, the fact is that there are often young children in the room while materials aimed at teens or adults are often being used.  Even if young children are being shielded from violence, sexuality, and substance abuse, there is also the often-unrecognized targeting of children by marketers.  Research involving functional MRI scanning has been used by marketers to learn what is effective — they’ve already realized that recognition of logos can occur as young as 9 months of age.


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