Two-Thirds of Kids Under 5 Are Way Over on Their Screen Time

A new study has found that most children under 5 are exceeding recommended screen time guidelines.

A toddler with a pacifier looks at a tablet screen.
Thanasis Zovoilis / Getty Images

It’s safe to say that over the last two years, we’ve all spent a bit more time watching Netflix or fiddling with our phones than we probably should have. What else could we do, right? But a recent study out of the University of Calgary found that even pre-pandemic, children under five were already getting

more screen time than is recommended. In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers analyzed pre-2020 records of 89,163 children worldwide for screen usage. They found that only 1 in 4 children under age two and a little over 1 in 3 children ages two to five met recommended screen time guidelines. The World Health Organization recommends no screens at all for babies and toddlers under age two and less than one hour a day of screens for preschoolers aged two to five. “These findings are concerning because we know that when children are watching screens for long durations, they have less time to engage in other activities (e.g., engaging with caregivers and siblings, physical activity, sleep) that are crucial for healthy development in young children,” study co-author Brae Anne McArthur, Ph.D., and psychologist at the University of Calgary, told Fatherly.One interesting finding was that compliance with screen time guidelines increased over time. “This may suggest that knowledge of the recommended guidelines is improving,” she says.Listen, parenting isn’t easy, and screens are sometimes a welcome respite when you frankly have stuff you have to get done. But if you’re concerned about your child’s media consumption, there are a few steps you can take to help moderate. “Designing a family media plan outlining when and how media will be used by a family can be a helpful first step in creating manageable device habits,” McArthur says. “Like other health behaviors, it is helpful if routines remain consistent throughout the week and are incorporated into each individual family’s lifestyle and routine. Pick a time that works for your family, set a timer, and enjoy.”McArthur also suggests tracking your child’s media consumption across devices for a day or two to get a clear picture of just how much screen time they’re getting. “Often adding up device use throughout the day can surprise parents,” she says. “This can give families a good idea of where they are starting and can act as a baseline as they work towards reaching the goal of [one] hour per day.”It’s important to remember that screens themselves aren’t inherently. Like anything else, moderation is key, and it’s overconsumption that can lead to issues. Previous research has shown that children who are overexposed to screenslean more towards inactivity than those who aren’t. But you don’t have to quit screens cold turkey. Some screen time can be beneficial, if handled correctly. For example, children may avoid negative effects of screen time and increase benefits when they view interactive content designed for their age group, and when parents share the experience with them, talking about what they’re learning, according to a research summary.But, McArthur says, the burden of responsible media consumption shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of parents. “Currently, there are few if any regulations related to what and how children access digital media,” she says. “Greater policy level accountability for media companies could improve the nature and content of media accessed by children.”Although parents certainly play a significant role in regulating their children’s exposure to media, the media industry is culpable in ensuring that media marketed to children is child-friendly. “Similar marketing techniques used for adults (e.g., notifications, automatic streaming, in-app advertisements) are also included in a large portion of programming for children, despite a child’s limited level of understanding and ability to navigate the digital environment,” McArthur says. “An industry-wide approach could aid families in limiting problematic digital media habits in the home. The onus isn’t just on parents!”