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We need to talk: Rethinking our relationship with screens

Posted on November 24, 2022 by the Canadian Paediatric Society | Permalink

Topic(s): Position statements / practice points

By Dr. Richard Stanwick and Dr. Robin Williams

The pandemic upended family life in all manner of ways, with increased digital media use and exposure by children and their parents being one of the most dramatic. Screens were enlisted for socializing and work as never before, and while much of this connectivity was necessary, creative, and beneficial, some aspects of our screen relationships have come at a cost.

The CPS published two statements looking at the impacts of rising levels of screen time on Canada’s youngest children. The first, in 2017, already recognized that the ways children under 5 use screens may be as important as the amount of time spent using them. A revision released in November 2022 further reinforces guidance for healthier screen use: minimize screen time, mitigate its effects, be mindful of how screens are used, and model positive screen behaviours.

What has changed in the intervening 5 years? First, child development research drew a heavy line under one simple fact: that early language and social learning happens best when experienced live, interactively, in real time and space, with real people. Second, everyday opportunities for this very mode of learning came under siege. Young children’s play times with other children in child care settings, community playgroups, and kindergarten were abruptly put on hold during the pandemic. Preschools for most children shut down. Even neighbourhood playgrounds were off limits for a time. Third, as parents shifted to working from home, families had to contend with new and complex levels of ‘technoference’—the frequent interruption of family routines, play, or interactions by digital media devices. All three factors, to varying degrees, pressured parents to rely more heavily on screen time to educate, console, and occupy young children, and possibly to co-view with them less.

As Canada moves back to a more normal life together and schools resume, parents and early child educators need to re-assess their relationships with screens. Sometimes this may mean simply turning them off. But more often it will entail remembering and re-living what we already knew to be true pre-pandemic:  

  • Reading, speaking, and singing with young children builds strong family relationships.
  • Sharing a family media plan helps reduce background media and keep mealtimes and bedtimes device-free.  
  • Fostering ‘in real life’ community connections and activities that promote free play (e.g., neighbourhood playgrounds and playgroups) and encourage early literacy (e.g., library programs), are hugely beneficial for children and parents. 
  • Media limit-setting that is intentional (‘Let’s watch or play this content, at this time, for this reason’), consistent, and shared works better than any hard re-set (‘No more TV until you get some exercise’).
  • Active, immersive play requires attention, engagement, and sharing the fun.

Building playtimes back into children’s lives post-pandemic means finding opportunities to replace screen time with play, optimally at or close to home and in early child care (ECE) settings (centre- and home-based, preschools, and nursery schools). Children learn socially and emotionally through regular play with other children. One recent study found that preschool play with a consistent group of friends reduces risk for mental health problems in later life [1]. Caring spaces and learning places that nurture preschool friendships support emerging play abilities, such as shared thinking and reciprocity, which in turn boost children’s cognitive and social skills and their emotional well-being [2] in ways screens never can.

Many children in Canada have little or no access to screen-free ECE, and we know that pandemic conditions caused or exacerbated literacy and numeracy delays in already disadvantaged populations [3]. Expanding access to quality ECE and afterschool programs that have minimal or no screen time for kindergarten and primary school children is essential to meeting their needs. Quality child care involves much more than caring for kids so that parents can work. It offers opportunities for play and building social networks and skills among friends beyond what is possible in a regular school day.

Parents must also model screen use as they navigate their daily lives. Health professionals can appeal to parents to be mindful of this modelling, by encouraging them to put their own screens away—especially at mealtimes—to turn off background TV, and to be attentive and curious about their children’s relationships—with people and screens.

Parenting is a joyful but difficult role and over the last few years most have suffered with fatigue, worry and guilt. We have all been changed by the pandemic, but as paediatricians we can encourage parents to redefine their family’s relationship to screens. Parents did what they had to do to get through the worst of the pandemic, but course corrections are now critical.

Dr. Richard Stanwick, paediatrician and recently retired Chief Medical Health Officer for Island Health (Victoria, BC) and Dr. Robin Williams, paediatrician and public health physician, are past presidents of the Canadian Paediatric Society.


  1. Zhao YV, Gibson JL. Evidence for protective effects of peer play in the early years: Better peer play ability at age 3 years predicts lower risks of externalising and internalising problems at age 7 years in a longitudinal cohort analysis. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 2022:
  2. McCain MN. EYS: Early Years Study 4: Thriving Kids, Thriving Society. Toronto, Ont.: Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation; 2020.
  3. Whitley J, Beauchamp MH, Brown C. “The impact of COVID-19 on the learning and achievement of vulnerable Canadian children and youth”. In: Children and Schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and Connection through Opportunity; an RSC Briefing. Ottawa, Ont.: The Royal Society of Canada, 2021.


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Last updated: Jun 20, 2023