With so many games and apps available, it’s easy to allow loads of screen time for little ones. Yet, experts say there are good reasons to hold off. Diana Shepherd, Ph.D., is a professor of child development. Shepherd cautions against the over use of tech for young children and says that for age 5 and younger, there are few benefits from screen time — and potentially many harmful consequences.
“Infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they can and do from interactions with caregivers,” Shepherd says.
HOW CHILDREN LEARN
Young children learn about the world through their senses. Thomas Kaut, administrator of a Montessori school for ages 2 - 12 says, “Children are active learners. Viewing a screen does not provide the same learning opportunity as active exploration with their hands. You can always do better with blocks, sand and water.”
When children build a tower with wooden blocks together, they gain skills in all areas of development. They learn shape, size, texture, weight and spatial concepts as they pick up and place each piece. Kids also count and sort. They repeatedly squat and stand, taking note of structure while negotiating.
In contrast, the click-and-drag virtual tower offers few of these learning opportunities beyond swiping and placement. Kaut worries the more time young children spend with screens, the less time they’re engaged in real-life activities that support cognitive, physical and social-emotional development. They aren’t moving their bodies, playing outside and interacting with other children. There are links between problems such as language delay, obesity and sleep disturbance with an increase of screen time and early exposure to screens.
THEY'RE WATCHING YOU. ARE YOU WATCHING THEM?
Young children need loving caregivers who will sing, read, play and cuddle with them. “The parent is the child’s first and most important teacher,” says Tami Winternitz, director of an early childhood education program. This means children also depend on parents to be good models.
“How adults monitor their own screen time in the presence of children often translates into how present they are with the children,” Winternitz says.
Devices cause interruptions that negatively impact parent-child interactions. Shepherd says when the TV is on — even in the background — parents spend less time talking to and playing with their infants.
“Positive engagement is reduced when parents are distracted by their devices, diverting their attention to a text, media message alert, snapping photos or watching TV,” she says. What’s more, research indicates that when you allow these technology-based interruptions, children often respond with negative attention-seeking behaviors such as whining, crying, clinging or acting out.
However, a new study (released March 11, 2019) reports, "Mobile devices don't reduce shared family time." The study reveals that while mobile devices were in use heavily, families were together in 2015, their use was particularly concentrated during alone-together time. That meant that they were at least home with their families and not off with friends. The findings show that in "2000, on average, children and parents spent 347 minutes per day in the same location. Of this, 95 minutes was alone-together time and 84 minutes were spent in shared activities such as eating or watching TV." That shared activity time actually went up by 2015 to 87 minutes.
USE MEDIA WITH YOUR KIDS
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children younger than 18 months avoid screen exposure except for video chatting. For children up to 5 years, limit screen time to one hour per day of high-quality programming with an adult.
“Letting children use media by themselves should be avoided,” says Shepherd, explaining that adults need to help children interpret what they’re seeing and apply it to the real world. In addition, parents must choose content carefully. On-screen violence can lead to increased aggression, particularly among boys. And young children whose media diet includes lots of fast-paced programming with multiple screen shifts (think SpongeBob) are at greater risk for attention difficulties.
“Parents must ask themselves, ‘What do I want my children to experience and learn from media, and how will this shape their thoughts, perceptions, emotions and behaviors?’” says Shepherd.
Preview digital books, too. Research shows that distracting elements — sounds, lights and animation — may decrease a child’s ability to follow the plot. But comprehension increases when an e-book is viewed with an adult and includes features such as word highlighting and repeatable text. It’s helpful to note there’s no harm in not exposing a young child to screens.
Parents are often misled when toys and apps are marketed as “educational.” They want to provide every advantage. Many parents worry their children will be left behind without access to the latest technology. However, most research indicates young children do not benefit from using these products, and experts agree that kids learn best when reading books and doing other hands-on activities with their caregivers.
Though it’s tempting to hand a tablet or phone to a fussy, bored child, you should avoid it as much as possible.
“Using a screen as a babysitter or distraction may make the situation easier on you for the moment,” says Winternitz. “However, a screen will not likely provide what the child actually needs — food, rest, comfort, calm, support or social interaction.”
Shepherd also cautions parents against using a screen as the go-to for calming a child — this can lead to problems with a child’s ability to self-regulate. As a busy mom of six children, she knows it’s not always easy. “The patterns we establish early guide their behaviors as they grow,” Shepherd says. “When they’re young, that’s the time to invest in their future by making time to engage with them.”
Common Sense Media
Age-based reviews of movies, games, apps, TV shows, websites and more. It rates content for positive messages, violence, harsh language. Lots of parent resources.
Age-based activity ideas, links to research and information on child development.
Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE)
Downloadable activity sheets and parent guides.