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"Only one hour of screen time" is not the hill to die on

In low-income homes, the overall amount of screen time toddlers get is predictive of their expressive language, but adhering to the “less than an hour per day” recommendation is not.

August 11, 2021

Screen time research is complicated, and it gets messy fast when trying to translate what it actually means for parents. In 2016, the AAP published a recommendation to limit screen time for children ages 2-5 to less than one hour per day. However, we don’t have any clear evidence for whether the 60-minute cutoff is truly meaningful. Does over an hour of media exposure per day predict later developmental delays? Is 45 minutes actually less detrimental than 75 minutes? There hasn’t been clear research to answer these questions, much less within low-income families specifically, which on average tend to have more media exposure.

Screen time, The Informed SLP
Amanda Filbey, MA, CCC-SLP

Dynia et al. set out to describe how media exposure in low-income homes relates to later language skills via a longitudinal study. Specifically, they wanted to know if the “one hour rule” was a meaningful line to draw in the sand. Here’s what they found:

  • Low-income homes had high, but highly varied, levels. The average daily amount was high (3.72 hours), but the standard deviation was large (3.78 hours). Additionally, only 24% of these families adhered to the “one hour rule.” 
  • More screen time was associated with poorer expressive (but not receptive) language abilities at 36 months. One suggested reason for this association is that media exposure may take the place of language-rich caregiver interactions which we know to be important for language development, especially at this early age. Parents who are dealing with the complexities of not having sufficient resources may have less ability to engage in language-rich activities such as reading with their children. In this vein, media exposure could be a symptom of bigger-picture challenges that the child’s family system is facing. 
  • Following the “one hour per day” recommendation was (drum roll please…) not a predictor of future expressive language abilities. They go on to suggest that touting this specific number may do more harm than good. This limit likely feels unattainable for many families (any parents out there agree?), and may lead to increased feelings of parental guilt and stress, which we know is not supportive of quality parent-child interactions and language development. 


So what’s the takeaway for us?


First, start with responsiveness and empathy, and try to appreciate the barriers (including socio-economic and raciolinguistic ones) that may make it hard or impossible for families to reduce screen time. Approach the topic with compassion, not shame. Rather than saying “allow no more than one hour of screen time a day,” we can instead encourage efforts to minimize and reduce media exposure where (and if) possible and encourage co-viewing and quality content as well. Along these lines, here are some tips from other researchers this month for how to go about this:

  • Strouse et al. found that children under 3 years old needed caregivers to explicitly point out connections between objects on the screen and their real-world counterparts in order to transfer that learning to real life. In their study, children relied on caregivers making comments such as “Look, this ___ is the same as what’s on TV!” This is a simple strategy that we can give to caregivers to use while they are co-viewing media with their toddlers.
  • Halpin et al.’s research suggests that giving caregivers tools to manage screen time-related behaviors and boosting their self-efficacy may be important for efforts to minimize screen time.
  • Corkin et al. found that encouraging parents to turn off phone notifications for times when they are interacting directly with their child may be valuable in supporting responsive parent-child interactions and early word learning by limiting “technoference.”


Corkin, M. T., Henderson, A. M. E., Peterson, E. R., Kennedy- Costantini, S., Sharplin, H. S., & Morrison, S. (2021). Associations between technoference, quality of parent-infant interactions, and infants’ vocabulary development. Infant Behavior and Development.

Dynia, J. M., Dore, R. A., Bates, R. A., & Justice, L. M. (2021). Media exposure and language for toddlers from low-income homes. Infant Behavior and Development.


Halpin, S., Mitchell, A. E., Baker, S., & Morawska, A. (2021). Parenting and child behaviour barriers to managing screen time with young children. Journal of Child and Family Studies. [open access]


Strouse, G. A., & Ganea, P. A. (2021). Learning to learn from video? 30-month-olds benefit from continued use of supportive scaffolding. Infant Behavior and Development.

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