Working with families: Screen-time and under fives

Trefor Lloyd
Friday, May 13, 2022

Over the last 18 months where would we have been without screens? Here are some things for parents to look-out for and what they could consider when allowing their children screen-time.

Trefor Lloyd
behaviour specialist in early years, working in Southwark schools


While not as good as the real thing, we have learnt the value of the virtual classroom resulting in most of us being reluctant to raise the risks of screens during these times.


Always a concern

We have been concerned about screen use since the 1950s, both how much, and what children are watching. While the headlines about addiction are generally overplayed, we all need to be aware that children are affected differently by screen use.


Language and learning

Learning language from a screen can be of limited educational benefit (even when it is ‘educational TV’), as the more nuanced aspects of communication (facial expression, and emotional content), are not communicated well through a two-dimensional screen.


What to consider: Sleep

One of the less-discussed concerns for under fives' screen-use is its impact on sleep. Regular screen use before bed stops melatonin from being produced, which helps us to fall asleep, and then to drop into a deep sleep. Small children need deep sleep to release growth hormones essential for their physical and mental development. Tablet use as a child goes off to sleep and TV use too near to sleep time can reactivate the brain and slow down the sleep process.


Children under five need ten to twelve hours of sleep a night to rest and benefit from growth hormone releases. If a child is not getting this and is finding it difficult to go off to sleep or sleep well and are therefore waking up tired, it could impact their learning.


The beginning of life habits

Small children get into habits that continue into adulthood. A fussy eater at three, is too often a fussy eater at 13, while an active child at three is likely to be an active child at 13. Developing positive screen habits are important for under-fives. Children require a broad range of activities to develop well. The most critical are language and communication (with both adults and other children); physical activity; play (a broad range of games and movement) as well as books and stories. If any of these activities are dominant, then the others suffer. If screens dominate then there is a risk that a four-year-old who wants to play with a phone; watch cartoons on a tablet; watch TV and look over an older sibling's shoulder as they play games, will want screens to dominate their life. As a result you may notice a child is having fewer conversations with adults and other children, and if there is a computer/tablet in the class and you see a child often in conflict with others, and uncontrollably watching others while waiting for their turn, there may be a problem here with screens dominating the child's life.


Young children's brain development

If a child's lack of communication, low level of vocabulary and little interest in open-ended activities is coupled with being drawn to screens whenever they can be, this might be a screen-related problem. Of course, these symptoms could also be related to other issues, however, screen-use is a possible reason to consider, if a child is having difficulties it is important this is being picked up and addressed as early as possible.


More on this topic

Take a look at this month's EYE Focus feature all around technology in the early years:

Dr Mona Sakr's article on Young children's digital play: opportunities for imagination, collaboration and self-determination

Dr Jacqueline Harding's article on How confident are parents in managing screen time?


Bibliography and further reading


Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world Canadian Paediatric Society, Digital Health Task Force, Ottawa, Ontario

Paediatrics & Child Health, Volume 22, Issue 8, 27 November 2017, Pages 461–468 

Lloyd. T. FACTSHEET on Boys (5-11) and Screens. Boys Development Project, 2014

Mosher, D. Smartphones horrified me as a new parent -- here's why I stopped worrying and learned to embrace kids' tech-filled futures. Business Insider, Australia. 18th June 2017.

Stiglic N, Viner RM. The effects of screen time on the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents: a systematic review of reviews. BMJ Open 2019.

Wolf, C. Et Al. Children's Environmental Health in the Digital Era: Understanding Early Screen Exposure as a Preventable Risk Factor for Obesity and Sleep Disorders. Children (Basel). 2018 Feb 23;5(2).

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