My Child Won’t Put Down the iPad! Screen Time: How Much is Too Much?

Adeline Tryon, PhD. and Shalena Heard, Ph.D.

Have you ever worried about the amount of time your child spends watching television and/or playing video games? Some experts and parents refer to these activities as “screen time” and have questioned the consequences of too much screen time for children and adolescents.  A concern shared by many parents is how watching television or playing video games for many hours may interfere with a child’s peer relationships and school progress.  A parent’s intuition is often right and a child’s ability to spend unusually long hours concentrating on a television screen is a valid concern.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at the University of Washington School of Medicine who studies children and media says that the stimulation provided by video games is more about the pace of the game and how quickly the scenes change. Due to the way our brain works, children who excessively play video games become comfortable with the fast pace and extreme alertness they use to respond and win video games.   A potential long-term effect is that such children may find the real world less stimulating or less interesting, which may explain why some children who engage in long periods of screen time appear withdrawn and disconnected from others.

If your child shows other symptoms such as a short attention span, hyperactive behavior, impatience, disorganization, fidgeting, along with spending long periods of time watching television and/or playing video games you should consider having them evaluated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  A child’s brain seeks more rewards and stimulation when they have ADHD.  When a child is not taking medication to regulate their ADHD symptoms playing video games may serve as a form of self-medication, because it provides their brain with the stimulation it is seeking.

Despite potential fears about screen time interfering with your child’s academic progress Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, states that the concentration children use to watch television and play video games is actually different from the kind they need to engage in school and other life activities.  However, children who have less friends and engage in less social activities may use screen time to substitute actual peer relationships.

If the information provided here relates to challenges you are facing with your child, consider scheduling an appointment to discuss the ideas below:

  • Your child’s brain may seek more rewards and stimulation than usual and an ADHD evaluation may be helpful.
  • Your child may experience some difficulty making friends and screen time may be one way of coping.
  • Your child may find their school classes difficult and mastering video games makes them feel confident and capable.

To reduce or  limit your child’s screen time the following ideas are recommended:

  • Avoid placing screens in your child’s bedroom
  • Pay attention to the content of their video games, especially to violence
  • Set limits on screen time (For example, 30 minutes after homework)
  • Provide your child with fun alternatives to screen time (For example, family game night)

For the full article and more detailed information see: “Fixated by screens, but seemingly nothing else” by Perri Klass, M.D.