Scrap the Screens Now, Reap the Rewards Later

While limited screen time can be OK for preschoolers, new research sheds light on the long-term detrimental effects of viewing violent content.


Children under 5 years are exposed to more screen media than any generation before them. Although the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends 1 hour of screen time per day for children 2 to 5 years old, children of this age have been reported to spend up to nearly 4 hours on screens each day.

Yet not all screen media content is bad; there is screen media content that can support learning. However, non-educational screen media, specifically violent content, is most popular among young children as it is more entertaining.

Even though paediatric policy statements continue to discourage young children from exposure to any violent screen media, it is hard to keep young children away — especially since advertised “age-appropriate screen media”, such as children’s cartoons, contain some of the highest rates of violence.

Previous research has incessantly linked young children’s violent media exposure to increased aggression, symptoms of anxiety, and sleep disturbances. But what about the long-term effects of early exposure to violent media on social and academic skills? A new study published in the Journal of Development and Behavioral Pediatrics led by Dr. Linda Pagani, Full Professor from the University of Montreal, set out to answer this question.

Data collected from almost 2,000 children within the province of Quebec were used for this study. Parents completed surveys on violent screen media usage during preschool-aged years (around 3 to 4 years old), and 10 years later the same children’s social and academic achievement were assessed by their school teachers.

The results demonstrated that more than half the children in the survey were exposed to violent programming as preschoolers (for girls this number was around 45%, whereas for boys it was around 60%). Furthermore, preschool-aged exposure to violent media was associated with higher levels of emotional distress, inattention, disruptive behaviours, social withdrawal, and decreased academic motivation in early adolescence.

Specifically, girls that were exposed to violent screen media during preschool-aged years had a 16% decrease in academic achievement compared to girls who were not exposed. Similarly, boys that were exposed to violent screen media during preschool-aged years had a 6% increase in conduct disorder behaviour compared to boys who were not exposed.

A child’s brain development is highly influenced by the experiences they have from the ages of 0 to 5 years. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the content that young children under 5 are consuming.

But as mentioned above, not all screen media content is harmful — there is educational, age-appropriate, non-violent content out there.

Parental modelling, management, and encouragement of non-violent screen media for preschool-aged children are just a few of the suggestions made by the Canadian Pediatric Society to limit screen time, which in turn may benefit a child’s future social and academic success.

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Alexandria (Alex) Samson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She completed her BSc in Neuroscience from Dalhousie University. Alex is a strong believer in open science and is passionate about making scientific research accessible to all audiences.