Screen time for kids – how to make better choices

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Before the pandemic, many parents already found it challenging to manage children’s screen time. Add to this mix lock-down, school closures, no babysitting and working from home? Ta-da! Your child can now speak English with an American accent, and if you look closely you’ll see his eyes are slightly squared. In this article, we discuss how to manage screen time for kids better during the pandemic.

This is everyone’s reality though, and for many families, screen time is one of their only survival skills.

Lizette van Huysteen, co-owner of The Practica Programme explains the effect of screen time on kids, and how parents can make better choices in choosing programmes for their children to watch.

What is screen time?

This is any time spent in front of a screen, including a television, laptop and cell phone. Many parents tend to forget the latter when reckoning the hours spent on screen activities.

Why is screen time harmful to kids?

The purpose of this blog is not to cause further guilt and anxiety; we all currently live in the same reality. But it is important for parents to understand what the screen-time fuss is about.

It is addictive

Babies simply love television, especially once they hit toddler-hood. The reason for this attraction is rooted in what researchers call “the dopamine reward loop“. This is an extremely interesting and rather scary phenomenon that does not only affect children. Do you frequently find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your social media pages without seeing much that interests you, yet not feeling inclined to stop? Meet Dopamine, a chemical released in your brain in response to certain situations, that makes you want it more and more and more.

The crux of it is that human beings of all ages are attracted to novelty and sensory experiences that are out of the ordinary. And the more you get, the more you want.

In children, screen time influences brain function and development. It contributes to hyperactivity and attention difficulties, not only while watching it but for years to come. It suppresses creativity and leads to them becoming disinterested in exploring new learning opportunities.

Many parents will know that their children’s behaviour is negatively affected by television. Many children become rude, disobedient and short-tempered on days where they watch too much television.

Screen time in babies?

Babies may stare at the bright colours and motion on a screen because it’s novel and more interesting than real life, but real life is what they need and what they are wired to understand. Their brains are incapable of making sense or meaning out of all those bizarre pictures.

It takes around 18 months for a baby’s brain to develop to the point where the symbols on a screen come to represent their equivalents in the real world. 

What is more, researchers say that the overly loud noises and bright, quick-changing visual images that characterize typical children’s programs are simply too much too soon.

Screen time guidelines for different age groups

We realise that the below time limits are difficult for parents who are working from home and do not have their usual help and support. But this is what you should aim for on the days where things are going better.

18 months and younger

  • No screen time is best
  • An exception to this rule would be live chats with friends and family

18 months to 2 years

  • Limit screen time
  • Avoid solo use; it would be best for someone to watch with the child and explain what is happening
  • Choose programmes with quality educational experiences
  • Repeat a few selected programmes and experiences
  • Ideally, the maximum time should be 10 minutes a day on a television or 5 minutes on a tablet
  • Avoid background television

Screen time for kids 2-5 years

  • Limit screen time to one hour a day
  • Avoid cartoons with quick shot changes, unnatural sounds and difficult storylines
  • Avoid background television
  • Repeat familiar, expected experiences (it’s OK for a child to have one favourite programme that they watch repeatedly)
  • Repeat and apply new words in real life

6 years and older

  • Place consistent time limits on the time spent and the types of media
  • Don’t let screen time affect sleep, creative play, exercise and other behaviours

When your child is old enough, what should you be watching?

The worst possible choice would be ‘fast-paced cartoons’

What children see and hear while watching these shows is so unlike what their brains are primed to process in real life, that they experience high energy cartoons as being simultaneously intriguing, mesmerizing and brain-numbing. An example would be a cartoon like Spongebob Squarepants

  • It has quick shot changes, leading to instant gratification in the brain, and no time to actually process what is happening
  • The storyline is not self-explanatory
  • Soundtracks are busy and loud
  • It causes visual overstimulation

Choose shows for toddlers that are gentle, dreamy and ‘magical’

Ideally, events should unfold slowly with gentle musical accompaniment so that parents can easily add their own personalized running commentary as they watch with their child.

At all ages, repeat selected songs and shows instead of watching something different every day. Repetition makes it possible for a child to progressively learn to predict the storyline, recognise concepts and learn new words.

Watch with your child and give a running commentary to help him make sense of what is happening on the screen.

Bear in mind that your little one needs to focus on the screen and listen to you at the same time, so speak gently, use a calm tone of voice, be sensitive and not overbearing.

Examples would be ‘Sweet Dreams’ or ‘Nighty Night Circus’ on YouTube.

For 2-6-year-olds

Choose shows with topics that are relatable, and that has uncluttered soundtracks and child-friendly language. It should also be visually uncluttered with slower shot changes.

An example would include Peppa Pig, Max and Ruby, and Shaun the Sheep.

For more guidance on screen time for kids and ideas on keeping them busy and on boosting stimulation and brain development, visit

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Lizette van Huyssteen graduated from the University of the Free Sate with a Social Sciences degree majoring in Developmental Psychology in 1990. The Practica Programme was launched in 1993 with Lizette as the developer and her husband Hennie, business- and marketing manager. Tens of thousands of families have since benefitted from the comprehensively curated structure of this unique educational home programme, which is timeless in its practical approach to maximising the learning potential of children who are between birth and seven years old.

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