We know it’s difficult 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:
- To encourage healthy movement, the World Health Organization advises against sedentary screen time during the first year and suggests instead reading and storytelling with a caregiver. For two-year-olds, it recommends only an hour of screen time and notes that less is better.
- The American Academy of Paediatrics 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.
- 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.
- 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 “cut-off” 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 and video chats are not necessarily one and the same
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 what about video calls with loved ones far away? 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 bedtime, 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.
- 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.
- If you do want to cut screen time altogether, have some alternative activities in mind to fill the space. Whether you choose time outdoors, reading and storytelling, or independent play, it’s easier to focus on doing these activities rather than just avoiding screen time.
- Plane time and travel time don’t have to mean screen time. Travelling without a device usually means carrying more stuff with you like books, crafts (play dough, washable markers, pipe cleaners and pompoms) and snacks, as well as accepting that your child is going to take much of your focus. One tactic that works for some is audiobooks with kid headphones. You can typically find the audiobooks that go with picture books you already have, so your child can follow along as they listen.
- Make the most of the surrounding props. 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). Furthermore, once you put devices away, you start to notice how many people might love to talk to your baby.
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