12 - 48 Months

Screens: What the research tells us

“For younger kids, in particular, there’s a lot of science out there that shows that kids aren’t really understanding what’s going on on screens, and so ultimately there really is no strong developmental benefit.”

Dr. Zach Stuckelman, Lovevery expert

Screens are so effective at distraction, but equally effective at causing parents angst! In today’s interview, Jessica Rolph is joined by Lovevery expert, Dr. Zach Stuckelman, to get to the bottom of the research on screens and young brains.

They examine which content is better than others, and whether those learning apps are really teaching our kids anything. They also explore the value of video chatting and looking at family pictures or videos together on a phone.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has its recommendation: No media use by children younger than 18-24 months, except for video chatting, while kids ages 2 to 5 should get no more than an hour of screen time per day, but we wanted to know why.

Zach has researched the impact of screens on children’s language, literacy, socioemotional, and cognitive development and has shared that research in lectures across the United States.


[2:01] Are screens bad? How much is too much?

[5:18] Zach breaks down the age bands for screens to help parents navigate what to do when.

[7:08] How do we pick the best screen content for our children? What is the difference between something like Little Bear, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Powerpuff Girls? 

[10:14] Is video chatting with family members different than “regular screen time”?

[11:18] How about screen time on a long trip with an 18-month-old?

[12:40] Is it ok to let children look at pictures of their family and videos of themselves playing?

[13:47] What kind of time limits should parents enforce?

[14:50] What to do when an older sibling gets access to a screen and the younger child is below the ideal age range?

[17:12] Jessica shares her takeaways from the conversation.

Mentioned in this episode:

You’ll find tips on how to scale back on screen time in Jessica’s interview with Meghan Owenz from September of 2020. 


Jessica: Hello, Zach, it’s great to have you here.

Zach: It’s great to be here, Jessica. Thank you so much for having me.

Is screen time bad for babies?

Jessica: So Zach, this is the question that we all have in the back of our minds, whether we admit or not, we just want to know are screens bad? And at what age could they be bad or are they okay? Help us make sense of the science.

Zach: Are screens bad? I think the science would tell us, it depends on a variety of different factors. It depends on the age of the child, so younger kids don’t really understand what’s going on on screens, we’re talking about infants all the way up to two years old, they’re just not going to really comprehend the information on the screen.

And so because of that, because of that lack of understanding, giving your child to screen at the age of 14 months, really what it’s doing is just distracting them, it’s not providing any developmental benefit to their overall growth. A lot of people will rely on something called the displacement hypothesis, especially for younger kids, and that if kids are using screen, especially during those early years of development, what is that time being displaced from? So what are they not doing when they are using screens? Are they not playing with physical toys, are they not reading books, are they not just having simple interactions with their parents to learn language, to learn right and wrong, and so on. “So for younger kids in particular, there’s a lot of science out there that shows us that kids aren’t really understanding what’s going on on screens, and so ultimately there really is no developmental, strong developmental benefit.”

Now, for pre-schoolers and toddlers, that’s when you start thinking about things like the type of screen, the amount of time, and the type of content on the screen, and there in lies the bigger questions of whether screens are good or bad for educational purposes. There are years worth of research studies that demonstrate that certain types of programs… The classics like Sesame Street, there’s no argument there, it can help kids learn. However there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.

I think it’s a balance. I think that absolutely like any activity, there is some form of neurological impact. Research has found that, for instance, that use of screens, especially excessive use of screens, can have an impact on the development of children’s white matter in their brain, that specifically kind of key to things like literacy development, language development.

So ultimately, there is still that question of how much is too much, what is the type of content that is still kind of within the realm of, this is good for your child, and ultimately, how do we strike a balance between the things that we know are good in a more traditional sense, like shared book reading, toy play, playing outside and the like, versus what the more modern technological opportunities are for kids learning and development.

Screen time recommendations by age

Jessica: So let’s break it down by age. The American Academy of Pediatrics has their recommendations. I think it’s no younger than two, and then they say 18 months for screens, if you’re sitting next to them, which I always found kind of odd, because why would you use the screen if you’re going to sit next to your child watching together. But that’s just me. Can you break down the age bands for screens to help parents navigate what to do when? 

Zach: Look, I think the American Academy of Pediatrics in a lot of ways are making recommendations based on the science, so I don’t want to discredit them at all, but I think one of the main things that they really rely upon in their recommendations are this idea of children’s developing cognition. So this goes into a lot of work by certain psychologists like Judy DeLoache, Georgene Troseth, all about these ideas of children symbolic understanding. So if we think about what a symbol is, it’s really anything that can stand for or represent something else, and so a screen in that way can be a symbol. Children come to learn and to understand that the elephant that they see on TV is not a real elephant that’s about to spray them with water from its nose, but rather it’s a representation of either like a specific elephant or the concept of an elephant, and so on. Kids under two have no ability or no strong ability to do that on their own.

A lot of research going back even to the ‘80s with something like Sesame Street, have found that children, preschoolers in particular, benefit specifically from what we call joint media engagement, which means when a parent or a knowledgeable adult partner sits with them and watches or engages. What the research and the results find from those certain joint media engagement studies, is that when children are with a parent or knowledgeable adult, they learn more; when they are not, they learn less.

Best screen time content for kids

Jessica: So let’s get into the content. There are a lot of a parent questions on content on the screens. If they’re going to use screens in this moderated approach according to AAP guidelines, how do you suggest that they pick the best screen content for their children? Can you speak to the difference between something like Little Bear, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Powerpuff Girls? 

Zach: Well, I think the biggest thing there is whether or not it has been designed and written to be developmentally appropriate. What is the language that’s showing up? What is the animation style? So for instance, there is research out there that shows that children actually tend to learn better from realistic images and picture books than they do from animated or cartoon-ish images, I think the same can be applied or generalized to something like television shows. So for instance, if we look at something like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, that’s a live action show. You see Mr. Rogers, you see the mailman, you see that they’re living, breathing people. That makes the connection between the sort of content that’s being promoted, like socio-emotional lessons on Mr. Rogers, much easier to transfer to real life because Mr. Rogers can look like your grandpa.

The mailman could look like you are mailman. That makes that connection for, especially developing young children who’s again, ability to symbolize and connect what’s going on on screen to the real world much easier than, let’s say, watching something like The Powerpuff Girls. Speaking of shows like The Powerpuff Girls, that to show, I think it’s a great example, Jess, of something that doesn’t necessarily have a ton of tangible lessons that come from it, especially ones that children who are younger can fully grasp on to. That show is filled with action and a lot of animation and very quick cut scenes from scene to scene. If you look at the segments of something like Sesame Street, quite often you’ll find when they talk about something super educational, they’re not cutting between Elmo and then back to Cookie Monster, and then back to Rosita, and then back to Abby Cadabby, but rather it’s maybe the Count and Elmo on screen for two to three minutes straight, talking about a specific concept.

That has a lot to do with why kids learn better from those sorts of formats than something like Powerpuff Girls, which is all about that like bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. And never really letting the child to have time to process what they’re seeing and settle that knowledge into their working memory and eventually into their long-term memory as well.

Video chatting as screen time

Jessica: So what about FaceTiming family members? A lot of parents have questions about this for their babies, for their toddlers, is it different than “regular screen time”?

Zach: There is no doubt about that, and that’s the reason why. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics came back and said like, No screens below two years old except video chat, and that’s because it presents this opportunity for serve and return. Right, it presents this ability for children to envision and see that their initiation, their verbalization is actually met contingently from the responding partner on the other end of the video chat. So when they’re video chatting, they actually get used to that back and forth that can occur in a normal language conversation in real life, they just experience it via a screen. That interaction is still important because they are starting to create that foundation that when someone talks to you, whether digitally or in real life, you can respond to them and they will recognize and then respond back to you.

Screen time while traveling

Jessica: And what about screen time on a trip, a long trip with a less than 18-month-old, what do you… What do you recommend? 

Zach: Yeah, I mean, I would avoid screens, I would say that ultimately, it may be difficult, it may be challenging, and not to say that I am trying to shame parents who do end up using screens, but again, goes back to this fact that what our children really getting out of that experience, probably not a ton. It’s really meant to serve as a distraction, that’s not a bad reason to use screens, but if there are other distractions that you can provide to your child on something like a plane ride, a long car ride, a trip… I would opt for that over the screen time, because again, the research just shows you’re ultimately just displacing other potential learning opportunities from more tangible, physical sorts of toys, books and so on, that may be more developmentally appropriate than a screen, which they may not get a ton out of, especially at younger ages.

Jessica: Very helpful, and what I do and what I’ve done, and this is just sort of our… For some reason, I’ve justified it in my head. I will, B woke up really early this morning and I was like, “Oh, I’m just really want to sleep a little longer,” and so I gave her my phone, turn on airplane mode and said she could look at pictures and videos. For some reason, I think that her looking at pictures of our family and videos of her or her brother’s playing is better… Is there any logic to that? 

Zach: Yeah. I mean, it gives them the opportunity to kind of get that stimulus that they may be crave from the phone without actually engaging in some of the more distracting sorts of features and activities that may be present, like games and videos that are ultimately just meant to serve as entertainment, which is not a bad thing, but I am a big proponent, if it wasn’t clear already, just of using screens, especially in those early years for education, not for entertainment as much. And ultimately, I think that when you face the facts, using things like photos and videos of your family is a lot better than your child, then her, playing Angry Birds for the hour or so that you want to continue sleep it.

Jessica: And I did get an extra 25 minutes.

Zach: Wow.

How much screen time is too much

Jessica: So let’s talk about limit setting, do you have any suggestions for how long you should allow your child to watch a screen, let’s say starting it from two to three or from two to four. 

Zach: Yeah, I think 30 to an hour a day is the max, right? Any less than that is also fine. I would almost use that recommendation all the way up until five and especially depending on the content, right? I think if you want to do an hour, maybe that hour is primarily made up of things like Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, Doc McStuffins, programs that have developmental science that backs up their educational, potential, but an hour’s worth of playing Super Mario Brothers while can be fun and enjoyable for the child, doesn’t necessarily give them much to benefit them in other contexts, in other settings, so that…I would maybe say if you want to give your child like 30 minutes of game time, that’s maybe my max, especially for those younger, more impressionable children.

Jessica: So a lot of parents had questions about an older sibling getting access to screen time and the younger child really being out of the range, the ideal range for the AP guidelines. What do you recommend in these situations? 

Zach: It’s always hard, right? Because siblings, especially when you’re looking at younger, looking up at older, that social comparison is just always inherently there. I think, again, it’ll all depend on the age of the children, if the child who you have the screen is four or five, and the child who doesn’t is one or two, I think it’s all about distraction, finding something that they would also enjoy engaging in, that maybe the child wasn’t even thinking about because they were so focused on their sibling screen time. That’s I think super important because ultimately it’s all about the media habits that you’re setting with your child.

And obviously you don’t want to necessarily deprive one child for the sake of another, that doesn’t necessarily promote healthy habits either, but at the end of the day, you still want to ensure that you’re following those guidelines, those recommendations that under two, there really is no point and no benefit of screen time, and so ultimately, I think providing the younger child with something stimulating, something that can engage them may be that perfect solution for not ending up in a fight, a tantrum, what have you, when the older sibling is engaging with screens and who knows, maybe if you give your child something super fun and engaging, and when I say your child, the younger child, your older child might end up being like, “I don’t want to play with the screens anymore, I want to do what my little brother or sister are doing”, and then all of a sudden there is no screen time…

So, you might actually find that providing those distractions not only benefit the younger child who may not get any benefit from screens, but you actually might find that it also takes your older child away from screens and then nobody’s using screens.

Jessica: Zach, it has been so great having you with us today. Thank you.

Zach: Yeah, absolutely. And thank you for giving me the platform to share what so many researchers and scientists are trying to spread and give that knowledge to parents over the past couple of years, I really appreciate it.

You’ll find tips on how to scale back on screen time in my interview with Meghan Owenz from September of 2020. 

  1. Research has found that use of screens, especially excessive use of screens (2 hours or more), can have an impact on the development of white matter in children’s brains. White matter contributes to executive function skills… skills like teamwork, leadership, decision-making, working towards goals, and critical thinking. Zach recommends most children between the ages of 2 to 5 be limited to under an hour of screen time a day. 
  2. Video chatting does not fall into the same category as digital entertainment. While babies and toddlers may not be able to make a connection to who is represented by the image on the screen, video calls present an opportunity for serve and return — the adult on the other end of the chat will respond as if they were in the same room. 
  3. Research shows that children tend to learn better from realistic images and picture books than they do from animated or cartoon-ish images. Pace matters too. Cartoons tend to switch from frame to frame more quickly than something like Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers. This slower pace allows a child time to digest the content they are watching and make connections to real life.

You can find more ideas for screen-free play on the Lovevery blog


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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, 18 - 48 Months+, 0 - 12 Months, Technology, Cognitive, Child Development, Parenting

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