Before having a child, I passed judgment (as we humans do), when I saw children out in public on their mobile devices. I would think, “Hey! Look around you! Enjoy the real world. You’re missing the point of it all.” As someone who grew up without a mobile phone (and at some times, no more than a few TV channels), I knew the world before it was fully “plugged in.” I have seen firsthand how being constantly connected has re-wired my own brain to check in to my digital world and tune out the real world around me. I have worried how growing up solely in this plugged-in world (as a digital native) would influence my future child’s development.
My husband read an article about screen time limits, and specifically how screen time at a young age could negatively impact brain development.
I was pregnant at the time, and from his description of the article, much of what I had assumed felt reinforced. For one thing, TV (or other screen viewing) is a sedentary activity. It is in some ways habit-forming. The noise and activity on a screen can be distracting, distressing and overstimulating to a child. And, unless a parent is engaging with their child when watching, digital media can impact not only the child’s understanding of the content but also the bonding between parent and child.
My husband and I decided, as a start, to avoid TV entirely for the first two years of my son’s life (at least while he was awake).
There were a few exceptions, like when we were sick and Animal Planet seemed a smart way to engage him in something of interest while we plugged our faces with tissues. But for the most part, our son ignored the blank TV screen in our living room, and that was just fine with us.
Recently, and for the first time, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidance around screen time. Their recommendation is to limit screen time to one hour daily for children ages 2-5 and to have no screen time at all for babies under 2. This isn’t new advice. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended no screen time for children 18 months and younger (unless it is via video chat). When using screens, they suggest you “co-view, co-play and co-engage with your children” to encourage “social interactions, bonding, and learning.”
According to an AAP publication, “Because of their immature symbolic, memory, and attentional skills, infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they do from interactions with caregivers, and they have difficulty transferring that knowledge to their 3-dimensional experience.” This article goes on to say that, “Parents watching with them and reteaching the content” is what helps to facilitate learning.
All of these sources point to the same recommendation: limit all screen time for children.
When your child does watch programming, communicate with them about what they are seeing. Then, reintroduce the viewed concepts as you go about your daily lives. This engages the child, reinforces what they learned, and aids in their understanding.
Now that our son is two, he is more curious and interested in the TV. He is also more exposed to cartoon characters through friends, books, clothing, and toys (he knew Paw Patrol, Mickey Mouse, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and more, without having watched a single show).
As we decided to ease our restrictions around TV, we had to consider what programming would best aid in his brain development.
I actually tried searching for recommendations around this, and it proved a difficult task. For one thing, the articles I found with recommendations were not highly credible. The more credible sources weren’t going out of their way to make recommendations, as they had advised limiting screen time altogether. However, the same AAP publication suggested that programming such as “Sesame Street, can improve cognitive, literacy, and social outcomes for children 3 to 5 years of age and continue to create programming that addresses evolving child health and developmental needs (eg, obesity prevention, resilience). Evaluations of apps from Sesame Workshop and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) also have shown efficacy in teaching literacy skills to preschoolers.”
In our family, we decided not to wait until age three to allow some screen time.
A few nights a week, we let our son watch about 20-30 minutes of programming from Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers (he LOVES Mr. Rogers). While he watches, we sit with him, and communicate with him the entire time to explain what he is seeing. In the days that follow, we talk about the subject of the show again. For example, one Mr. Rogers episode talked about batteries. After one of my son’s battery-operated toys failed to turn on (because the batteries had died), I reminded him of that episode and explained that the batteries in this particular toy no longer worked and needed to be replaced. I can’t be certain that he understood me, but he said that he did, and he put his toy back in order to play with something else.
While every family should decide for themselves what guidelines they want to follow with regards to screen time or anything else for that matter, I do think it’s important that parents are informed about the pros and cons of each issue. WHO only recently issued guidance around screen time, despite the prevalence of digital media for many, many years. I expect more studies will continue to emerge on the impact of screen time on brain development, particularly on digital natives. Digital consumption is here for the long haul, so we just have to stay informed about how we use it. In the meantime, and no matter what you decide for screen time, remember that, like all good parenting, screen time requires balance, communication, and engagement. As the AAP states, “Media and digital devices are an integral part of our world today. The benefits of these devices, if used moderately and appropriately, can be great. But, research has shown that face-to-face time with family, friends, and teachers plays a pivotal and even more important role in promoting children’s learning and healthy development. Keep the face-to-face up front, and don’t let it get lost behind a stream of media and tech.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.