Screen Time Guidelines for Preschoolers

March 20, 2020

Today, parents are faced with a unique challenge that previous generations did not have to navigate: screen time.

Most of us have, at one time or another, dealt with confusion, guilt and uncertainty regarding the screen time we allow our children. How much is too much? Are some forms of screen time better than others? What about those learning apps and educational TV shows? Among all the questions, here’s what we know – technology and screen time aren’t going away. Therefore, it’s up to us as parents to manage screen time for our children.

The good news is that researchers have been asking the same questions about childhood screen time as concerned parents. And over the past years of observation, study and tests, they’ve come up with some solid, research-backed guidelines. If you have questions about screen time and what the limits should be, read on!

Recommended Daily Screen Time Allowances for Preschoolers

The AAP (American Association of Pediatrics) recommends limiting screen time to 1 hour per day of high-quality media for children aged 2-5[1]. This allotment excludes video chatting with friends and family. 

For this preschool age bracket, the AAP highly encourages parents to be physically present and to co-view all media with their children. 


’Good’ vs. ‘Bad’ Screen Time

So what constitutes high-quality screen time? Kids Health distinguishes good screen time from bad screen time, noting that having the TV on in the background all day as background noise or having your child watch your favorite shows with you are negative forms of screen time. The same goes for other age-inappropriate shows, video games and other programming[1]. On the other hand, high-quality screen time can look like:

-Playing phonics or numbers games together on the iPad

-Watching age-appropriate nature shows

-Video-chatting with family members or friends

Common Sense Media also suggests taking into account “the quality of kids’ media, how it fits into your family’s lifestyle, and how you engage your kids with it”.[2]



Negative Effects of Too Much Screen Time 

Too much screen time has significant and measurable effects on children. An article published in JAMA Pediatrics as reported in Today’s Parent suggests children who spent excessive amounts of time with screens are at risk of developmental delays. These delays are impacting school readiness. Kids are heading to kindergarten without the social skills, fine motor skills and gross motor skills to help them succeed in school.[1]

Preschoolers who spend more time in front of a screen have lower structural integrity of white matter in areas of the brain – or brain wiring that relates to language, literacy, imagination, and executive function such as self-regulation, according to a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics[2]

Another 2019 study by the University of Alberta compared 2400 children, some of whom had 2 hours of screen per day and some who had 30 minutes a day. The children who regularly had more daily screen time were 5 times more likely to show signs of inattention. The study also showed a reduced risk of behavioral issues if children spent two hours a week doing an organized sport.[3] This study, in addition to showcasing the negative effects of too much screen time, shines a light on the fact that physical exercise can reduce behavioural issues and encourage both physical and mental health in children.

In short, too much screen time has clear and measurable negative effects on children. Many of these problems may have less to do with screen time itself than with the elements of real life that children miss out on when they are parked in front of a screen.




The Benefits of Reducing Screen Time for Your Preschooler 

The WHO states that eliminating or limiting screens for kids under 5 will result in healthier adults. They go beyond simply taking away iPads and propose that children need to get more sleep and more exercise to develop lifelong healthy habits. “What we really need to do is bring back play for children,” Dr. Juana Willumsen, who works on childhood obesity issues at the W.H.O., said in a statement. “This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep.[1]

When children overdo screen time the real damage is that they are missing out on elements of life crucial to their development. They are missing out on imaginative play, exercise, socialization, observations, sleep, and other key aspects of physical, mental and emotional life. Setting limits on screen time will encourage your child to move, play, socialize and will improve the quality of his/her sleep.


Navigating Screen Time as a Family

As families, we all must decide how to manage these devices for ourselves to meet both our needs and the needs of our children. We should make these choices mindfully, knowing that the negative impact of screen time for young children may outweigh the benefits.

To eliminate the guilt and uncertainty, it’s helpful to know the research and recommendations for preschool-age screen time (no more than 1 hour per day of quality programming). Going forward, we can be proactive by:

-Creating a family screen time plan that works for us and our children and considers the above time recommendations. (The more consistent we are, the less likely children are to push and whine!)

-Designating some of this screen time to view quality media as a family (ideas include playing a phonics game together on the iPad, having a once-a-week family movie night, and making time for discussions that integrate viewed content into real life.)

-Monitoring our children’s behaviour after they have had screen time. Are they cranky? Overstimulated? Having trouble sleeping? Their response to different programs and time allotments can serve as a great guide for parents in creating a healthy screen time plan.

-Making space for lots of screen-free play time! For tips on the importance of play to childrens’ development, see our blog post on free play! (

-Modeling health screen time for ourselves as parents, in both quality and quantity. It can be easy to create healthy screen time boundaries for our children, but much more difficult to apply it ourselves! Nevertheless, as our children are always watching and emulating us, applying healthy boundaries to our own screen time can have a profound effect on our children.

As they say, knowledge is power. Backed by the current research and recommendations, we can create clarity in our management of screen time for our preschoolers and eliminate uncertainty and guilt.

 Here’s to a seamless transition to less screen time and more play!

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