We know it’s not always easy to get a straight answer about how screens affect our children. The experts have said over and over again that there are no proven benefits of media exposure for infants and toddlers, but will time spent on a phone or tablet actually hurt your baby?
Because phones and tablets are so convenient, young children are more exposed to screen time than ever before. In fact, 40% of 3-month-olds and 90% of 2-year-olds are regularly watching programs on screens. In this post, we have sorted out the information being shared on this topic to help you make your own informed decisions about how to manage screens for your family.
How screen time impacts brain development
- As part of a major research study of thousands of children to try to understand the impact of screen time on young children, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that children who reported more than two hours a day of screen time got lower scores on thinking and language tests.
- That same study found that children with lots of screen time had a premature thinning of the outermost layer of their brains (the cerebral cortex). This layer is the most evolved brain region and supports the highest-order cognitive functions.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding screen media for children younger than 18 months. Children under 18 months cannot translate what they perceive on a two-dimensional screen into the physical world. Researchers say that young children who have more access to screens develop lower communication and cognitive abilities because screen time takes away from the experiences that genuinely support learning.
- The people designing touchscreen devices and the apps that play on them are taking steps to limit their use at home. Silicon Valley parents are concerned enough about the addictive potential of screen time that many of them are eliminating it completely for their children.
How screen time impacts the physical development
- Babies’ sleep and subsequent brain development is potentially being harmed by touchscreen device use. A University of London study showed that there are “point by point” increases in sleep interruption, meaning that a quarter of an hour on a screen might be reflected in four minutes’ less sleep. Sleep is essential for the development of the brain, particularly during the first few years of life. The study was unable to determine any “cutoff” for screen use; there was no established amount that had zero impact.
- Additional research has shown links between screen time and toddler obesity, sleep disruption during early childhood, and diminished fine motor development.
Screen time can reduce quality time with loved ones
- Before we all had smartphones, earlier research was already showing that time spent watching TV was taking away from time interacting with siblings and parents, engaging in creative play, and doing homework. There’s good reason to believe that these effects are the same or greater with handheld devices today.
But it can make chats with Grandma and Grandpa more enriching
- Scientists have shared that video chats such as Facetime are different from other screen media, and not harmful in the same way. Even many parents who say no to screens in all other aspects of their children’s lives are fine with video chats because the science supports that the serve-and-return conversation and real-time interaction are good for learning and bonding.
- That said, it’s best to avoid video chats right before bed time, when the screen light is most likely to disrupt crucial sleep time.
Tips for managing screen time
Screen time is really hard to minimize and manage when we’re just trying to get through the day, so here are some tips to help think it through if you aren’t ready to turn off all the screens cold turkey.
- Make the best of video chats. They aren’t harmful like other forms of screen time, and you don’t want to let Grandma down. Zero to Three has 5 tips for making the most of them.
- Plane time and travel time don’t have to mean screen time. Traveling without a device usually means carrying more stuff with you like books, crafts (play dough, washable markers, pipe cleaners and pom poms) and snacks, as well as accepting that your child is going to take much of your focus. One tactic that works for some is audio books with kid headphones. You can usually find the audio books that go with picture books you already have, so your child can follow along as they listen.
- Make the most of props around you. Planes and restaurants can be more fun if you use what is already there: ice cubes and cups, the window shade (on a plane), or napkins (use it to hide snacks, play peek-a-boo). Also, once you put devices away you start to notice how many people might love to talk to your baby.
- Consider delaying screen time budgeting altogether. Some parents argue that skipping screen time altogether is almost easier than budgeting it. It’s hard to say no to screens completely, but when a child gets used to the kind of rush that comes from using digital devices, they will learn to seek out the immediate gratification of a screen over the slow but more meaningful feedback of the real world.
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