One of the most common complaints parents have about their toddler is spending too much time in front of a screen. This can be anything from an iPad to a television, and it can leave your child feeling restless, cranky and unable to focus on anything else.
How do you know if what you’re seeing is normal? And how do we cut back on screen time without our kids throwing tantrums? Read on for more information.
The advances in technology mean today’s parents are the first generation to figure out how to limit screen time for children. While digital devices can provide endless hours of entertainment and offer educational content, unlimited screen time can be harmful.
For that reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting the amount of time that babies and toddlers spend in front of a screen.
That’s good advice — but in today’s world, it can be tough to keep babies and toddlers away from all the TVs, tablets, computers, smartphones, and gaming systems they’ll see.
Let’s face it: Screens are everywhere. Your little one will probably spend some time looking at one, making sure his or her screen time is as productive as possible. Check out My Baby Nursery for all your baby product needs.
How Much Is Too Much?
Babies younger than 18 months should have no screen time at all. The exception to this rule is video chatting with grandparents or other family friends, which is considered quality time interacting with others.
Toddlers 18 months to 24 months old can start to enjoy some screen time with a parent or caregiver. By ages 2 and 3, kids should watch no more than 1 hour a day.
But not all screen time is created equal.
For example, you and your baby playing an interactive colour or shape game on a tablet or watching high-quality educational programming together is good screen time.
Plopping your toddler down in front of the TV to watch your favourite shows with you is an example of bad screen time.
Use screen time as a chance to interact with your child and teach lessons about the world. Don’t let your child spend time alone just staring at a screen.
Why Is Excessive Screen Time Detrimental?
According to scientific literature, about 1 in 4 school-going children suffer from developmental delays/deficits, such as difficulty communication, language problem, impaired motor skills, and emotional debt.
Excessive screen time is considered one of the crucial risk factors that can potentially hamper the early developmental processes in children.
Such developmental delays can significantly impact the learning process and serve as a barrier to a child’s academic success.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, screen time should be restricted to less than 1 hour per day for a child of 2 – 5 years of age. Likewise, it is essential to avoid screen time for a child who is younger than 18 months.
However, in the United States, about 98% of children aged 0 – 8 years spend more than 2 hours/day on screens.
A recent study by the National Institutes of Health has shown that children spending approximately 2 hours on screens have lower thinking/reasoning power and language processing ability.
Moreover, the study has found that the brain area (cortex) responsible for reasoning and critical thinking becomes thinner in children who spend more than 7 hours on screens.
Similarly, another study involving 2441 children aged 2–5 years has found that excessive screen time in children aged 2–3 years is correlated with poor performance in developmental screening tests.
The study has also found that exposure to screens and performance quality are influenced by several factors, such as economic status of the family, maternal depression, child’s sleep pattern, child’s gender, child’s reading exposure, and child’s physical activity level.
How Does Screen Time Affect a Child’s Overall Development?
Physical, behavioural, emotional, and cognitive developments occur rapidly in young children, especially those under three years. Generally, children learn from their surrounding environment by observing the activities of adults, especially their parents.
Excessive screen time can significantly limit a child’s opportunity to experience specific day-to-day activities, which can cause narrowing of their general interests regarding off-screen matters/facts.
In other words, a child who is extensively exposed to the virtual world on screens generally spares less time playing, exercising or interacting with friends and family in real life. This can significantly impact a child’s overall growth and maturation.
Regarding language development, it is known that a child learns language while interacting with adults while talking or playing.
Unlike one-way involvement with screens, a reciprocal conversation with adults, which also involves facial expressions and emotional input, is much more beneficial for a child’s language development.
According to studies, children who are maximally engaged on screens usually show lower concentration/attention level and perform less well in reading tasks.
Importantly, too much exposure to the blue light on the screen can cause sleep deprivation by inhibiting the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin.
This can subsequently hamper the cognitive development of a child. According to studies, infants aged 6 – 12 months can experience sleep disturbance at night if exposed to screens extensively in the evening.
How might screens impact a child’s sleep?
As humans, our circadian rhythms and melatonin production — the sleep hormone — kicks in when the sunsets. But the blue light from screens inhibits melatonin, which can delay sleep.
And watching TV or playing games also keeps our brains and bodies more alert and activated and less ready for sleep. (Tablets and smartphones will suppress the melatonin more than TVs because the screen, and that blue light, is closer to the face.)
According to one study, infants 6 to 12 months old exposed to screens in the evening showed significantly shorter nighttime sleep than those who had no evening screen exposure.
For preteens and teenagers, excessive use of screens late at night will affect their sleep, and keeping screens out of the bedroom is advised.
Too much time spent on social media and lack of sleep can affect behaviour and cognitive performance in school and interfere with learning.
It has also been shown that excessive screen time and sleep deprivation are linked to obesity, affecting self-esteem and leading to social isolation and more screen time.
Excessive screen time can modulate a child’s emotional behaviours in many ways. Too much reliance on digital media can hold back their imagination power and motivational level. Because of the high screen addiction, children cannot often be entertained by nearby people, which at some point can cause frustration, anxiety, and impulsive behaviours.
Additionally, too much screen exposure can reduce a child’s ability to read facial expressions and learn social skills, impacting the child’s overall empathy level.
Unlike reading a book wherein, a child gets enough time to process the meaning of words or images, the continuous involvement.
In fast-moving videos or images, on-screen can negatively impact the concentration and attention level of a child.
Elementary school-age children who watch TV or use a computer more than 2 hours per day are more likely to have emotional, social, and attention problems.
Elementary school-age children who have televisions in their bedrooms do worse on academic testing.
Too much time engaging in sedentary activity, such as watching TV and playing video games, can be a risk factor for becoming overweight.
Exposure to violent TV shows, movies, music, and video games can cause children to become desensitised to it. Eventually, they may use violence to solve problems and may imitate what they see on TV.
Digital Devices Can Harm Family Relationships
Most of the conversations about the dangers of screen time focus on children. But, it’s essential to recognise that adults may experience many of the same harmful effects, like obesity and sleep problems.
But even if you aren’t experiencing any real health problems stemming from your digital device use, there’s a good chance your electronics could be harming your relationship with your child.
In a 2015 survey, one-third of children reported feeling unimportant when their parents looked at their smartphones during meals or playing together.
Even replying to a quick text message could be sending your child another message—that your phone is more important than he is.
Giving your child interrupted care—by repeatedly checking your smartphone—could also affect his development and mental health.
A 2016 study suggests looking at your digital devices could increase your child’s chances of developing mental health problems, like depression.
How Does Screen Time Impact a Child’s Ability to Learn?
Studies have shown that children under 2 learn less from a video than when learning from another person, and it appears that although children will watch the TV screen by six months, understanding the content does not generally occur until after age 2.
It’s not that they won’t be captivated by what’s on the screen, but they’re not learning from it.
Language development expands rapidly between 1½ to 3 years of age. Studies have shown that children learn language best when engaging and interacting with adults who talk and play with them.
There is also some evidence that children who watch a lot of television during the early elementary school years perform less well on reading tests and may show deficits in attention.
How Screen Time Affects Language and Communication?
Research shows that talking with children in a reciprocal dialogue is extremely important for language development and social interaction.
It’s that back-and-forth “conversation,” sharing facial expressions and reacting to the other person — in real life, rather than “passive” listening or one-way interaction with a screen — that improves language and communication skills in young children.
What Is Age-Appropriate to Introduce Screens?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends avoiding screens for children younger than 18 to 24 months, except when video chatting with family.
The AAP also recommends limiting screen use for preschool children, ages 2 to 5, to just one hour a day of high-quality programming (think Sesame Street or PBS).
When something needs to get done around the house, it can be helpful to have a young child otherwise engaged and entertained.
Our advice to parents is to turn on a short TV show like Sesame Street—something educational and fun that shows characters interacting and playing cooperatively to model good social skills—rather than giving their child a tablet or a phone.
And, if possible, it’s best to watch the educational programming with the child so you can actively engage with them about what they’re watching and learning.
How Addictive Can Digital Screens Be for Young Kids?
The problem with mobile devices is that they draw you in, and as we all know, it’s easy to waste time surfing the internet. They are also so portable and ubiquitous that we cannot manage without them.
As adults, we understand some of the drawbacks and make a conscious decision to put the phone down, but for 2- or 3-year-olds, who don’t have any understanding of these concerns, if they have been exposed to the phone/tablet since infancy, it becomes their norm, and they want to do more of it.
We should also be careful of relying on using screens to distract a child from a problem rather than having them figure it out and learn to resolve it themselves.
Using a favourite song to distract a young child who has just fallen and scraped their knee might be OK, but having the parent comfort and cuddle with the child and talk to them is better.
Using screen time to distract young children who are having trouble sharing a toy will not help them learn how to share and take turns in the future, although it may be a quick fix in the short term.
Are Some Screens Worse Than Others?
Television isn’t as bad as it was once perceived to be as it can be controlled more easily and stays in one place.
Tablets and smartphones are much more accessible because they’re portable. You can take them anywhere and use them at any time.
We believe YouTube is generally bad for young children. If left to their own devices, children are often better than their parents at finding their favourite videos that link to other videos and can lead to hours of watching endless clips.
The largely unregulated nature of the site allows children to watch almost anything; at best, there is little educational value, and at worst, it can be violent or inappropriate content.
Again, the best course of action is to watch with the child, so the parent is engaged in finding appropriate and educational content.
How Can Adults Limit a Child’s Screen Time?
Specific measures can be taken to prevent a child from excessive screen time. For example, in particular, circumstances where screen time is unavoidable, parents are advised to watch the on-screen shows and their children and interact with the children about the content of the shows.
In this way, children can get the benefits of face-to-face interactions while spending time on screens.
It is essential to select on-screen programs wisely.
Studies show that some high-quality educational programs, as well as interactive media, can be beneficial in terms of improving the academic skills of preschool children.
Exposure to screens must be prohibited while spending time with family or during mealtime and bedtime.
Because children imitate the activities of nearby adults, parents should restrict their own screen time to set an example.
Co-Watch Whenever Possible.
If children are going to have screen time, the best thing you can do is watch the show or game with them to help them understand what they’re seeing. Comment on something you notice, ask questions about what is happening if someone on a show is singing a song, sing along with your child. Engage with them and repeat concepts after the show is over, so they’re more likely to retain that information.
Choose Media Wisely.
Look to organisations for reviews about age-appropriate apps, games, and programs to guide you in making the best choices for your children.
Keep Bedtime, Mealtime, and Family Time Screen-Free.
Don’t use screens in the car except for long trips, and consider setting a curfew or an agreed-upon time when your family shuts off all screens.
Balancing online and offline time is significant.
Limit Your Phone Use.
Kids will do what they see their parents doing. At a young age, their parent(s) is the most important people in their life, so they will model whatever behaviour they see.
If they see that you’re behind a screen all day, every day, then they’ll know that it’s acceptable and will want to do the same.
Emphasise the Big Three: Sleep, Healthy Nutrition, and Exercise.
All three are essential to optimal brain growth and development and health and wellness for children and adults alike.
And excessive screen time can impact all three. Children who spend more time in front of screens have been shown to eat more fast food and fewer fruits and vegetables and get less sleep and exercise.
Therefore, it is essential to incorporate healthy lifestyle choices as part of the daily routine and limit screen time.
Screen Time Tips
The same parenting rules apply to screen time as to anything else — set a good example, establish limits, and talk with your child about it.
To make your toddler’s screen time more productive:
- Be with young kids during screen time and interact with them. That can mean playing an educational game with your child or talking about something you see together in an age-appropriate TV show or video.
- Research games and apps before getting them for your child. Thousands of apps and games claim to be educational, but not all of them are. Search online to see which ones educators and doctors consider the best.
- Schedule plenty of non-screen time into your child’s day. Unstructured playtime is essential for building creativity, so young children should have time to play away from screens every day. Family meals and bedtimes are also critical times to put the screens away and interact with your child.
Establishing Family Rules With Electronics
Telling your child to turn off his video games while you’re sitting in front of the TV won’t do anyone any good. You need to set healthy limits on your electronics use for your own sake, as well as your child’s sake.
Here are a few household rules you might want to establish to curb screen time:
- No digital devices during family meals.
- No electronics use during family fun nights.
- No screen time in the car.
- No screens allowed in bedrooms.
In addition, consider an occasional digital detox for the whole family. We have a wide range of playpens for your baby right here at My Baby Nursery.
Create a screen-free night once a week or commit to unplugging one weekend a month. It could be suitable for everyone’s physical and emotional health, as well as your family’s relationships.