by Lexi Abel
Screen time, or digital media, refers to the use of smart phones, tablets, computers, and TVs. As we all know, the use of digital media has exploded over the past few years. It’s everywhere and with everyone. Although there is limited research on how it is effecting our children, the research is beginning to grow.
The concern with screen time is how it can affect your child’s development and their physical health.
Infants and toddlers need hands-on exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers to develop their cognitive, language, motor, and social-emotional skills. Because of their immaturity, infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they do from interaction with caregivers.
A link has also been found between screen time use and language delay. An expressive speech delay can influence a child’s ability to conceptualize words or define their emotions. When kids can’t express themselves, they often get frustrated and are more likely to act out, use their bodies to express themselves, or use attention-seeking behaviors.
In addition to cognitive development, the physical health of children may also be affected by digital media use. A recent study found that body mass index or BMI increased for every hour per week of media consumed. This association is thought to be due to mindless eating that occurs while watching digital media and the exposure to food advertising on children’s programs. This advertising can lead children to make/want unhealthy food choices later. Additionally, screen time displaces time spent doing physical activity.
Regarding sleep, an increased duration of media exposure and the presence of digital media in the bedroom are associated with fewer minutes of sleep per night.
Not all digital media is negative, and research shows that children can learn from some forms of digital media.
Evidence shows that children under 2 years of age can learn words from video chatting with an interactive adult.
Children between the ages of 2 to 5 can learn from well-developed, high quality programs and media. Interactive programs that use touchscreens can also facilitate learning. When a program is able to identify when a child responds accurately to a prompt, the child can learn from the interaction. Sesame Workshop and Public Broadcasting Service programs have been found to teach literacy skills to preschoolers.
Examples of high quality media include Daniel Tiger, Sesame Workshop, PBS, and programs that display words with visuals.
You can help toddlers to learn from media by watching with them and re-teaching the content of the program.
It’s important to remember that higher-order thinking skills and executive functions are essential to school success. Skills such as task persistence, impulse control, emotional regulation, and flexible thinking are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children younger than 2 years avoid digital media use and children older than 2 years choose high-quality programming and use digital media only with an adult.
Tech companies surround us and there is pressure to introduce digital medial early. Please do not feel pressured to do this. Digital media is intuitive and children will catch on quickly when they are ready.
For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high quality programming. Help them understand what they are seeing and help them apply what they are learning to the world around them.
Here are some other recommendations for digital media use:
Nsikan Akpan – Toddlers’ screen time linked to slower speech development, study finds
American Academy of Pediatrics – Council on Communication and Media https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/sleep/Pages/Sleep-and-Mental-Health.aspx
American Academy of Pediatrics – Policy Statement Children, Adolescent, Obesity and the Media
American Academy of Pediatrics – Recommendations for Children’s Media Use
Rideout, V., Vandewater, E., Wartella, E. A. – The Kaiser Family Foundation Zero to six: electronic media in the lives of infants, toddlers and preschools