Mention “screen time” in a group of parents of young children, and you will likely hear impassioned remarks on all sides of the issue. Research reports about screen media use by young children are confusing at best. Making informed decisions is difficult, because understanding the true developmental impact of mobile devices is also in its infancy.
Let’s pause to review what we do know about child development. We know that the most important factor in our child’s development is a positive parent-child relationship; the interplay of warm, loving interactions. These age-appropriate experiences nurture expression and exploration, so learning follows—engaging the child’s mind and body. This engagement makes it safe to explore, experiment, problem solve and create. These building blocks then develop social-emotional skills and the academic skills of cognition, language, and executive functioning (i.e. the mental process that helps one apply past experiences to present action). These experiences take place in real time—a 3-D world with hands-on exploration and interactions with caring adults, siblings, and peers, very unlike the virtual world.
Today’s reality is that young children grow up in a world of screens. They are everywhere, so natural curiosity makes them interesting to young children. Combine this fact with the huge amount of time that adults spend using these devices, and it is no wonder that our youngest children are drawn to them! Recent research reflects these shocking facts:
- TV Use
- Birth to 2 years old — 55 minutes daily
- 2-4 years old—90 minutes daily
- Mobile Media Use
- 38% by children birth to 2 years
- 80% by children 2 – 4 years
- 83% by children 5 – 8 years
(Smartphones are the device of choice, followed closely by tablets)
What does this ubiquitous availability mean to parents who aren’t sure what to do about the constant screens in their own lives, not to mention in the lives of their young children? What does research say?
Currently, there is no research showing that using these devices independently enhances the development of children younger than 2 years old. Therefore, the Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding screen time for children under 2 and allowing not more than 1 to 2 hours of screen time a day for older children. Screens are 2-D experiences—whether via TV, tablets, smartphones, or computers. By themselves, they do not provide these whole mind-body learning opportunities, social interactions, and shared exploration. However,
“Research shows that children’s learning from media can be greatly enhanced when parents and other adults join in the make it a shared experience.”
Zero to Three’s, Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight gives research-based guidelines for screen use for children under three years old. Several shorter reads are also available that cut right to the point! Check out their infographic.
To summarize, Zero to Three offers these tips to make screen media interactive and, ultimately, a better learning experience.
- Watch and Play Together
- Watch and talk about what you see. Age appropriate content matters greatly. Check out the website commonsensemedia.org for ratings.
- Ask engaging questions.
- Move whenever possible—pretend you are what you are watching!
- Take turns to teach sharing and cooperation.
- Describe the actions to make it come alive with language.
- Keep trying—acknowledge efforts, learn problem solving.
- Make the Connections between 2-D and 3-D
- See it on screen—touch it in real life. Connect the dots.
- Apply concepts from the 2-D to real life.
- Connect and name emotions. Practice expressing appropriate emotions.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) reminds parents that there is no evidence to support the view that children must start using screen technologies early-on to succeed in a digital world. They remind us in their fact sheet, “Healthy Kids in a Digital World,” that how children spend their time is important, because lifelong habits and behaviors are formed in childhood.
CCFC also offers a “Screen-Free Week”, May 4-10, with many ideas that parents of preschoolers may like to explore as a way to set limits on screen time.
They follow these themes:
Unplug to Connect—chat, cook together, share songs and stories
Unplug to Learn—use all your senses to tell stories, describe your world
Unplug to Health—keep screens out of bedrooms and off during meal times
Unplug and Play—let children create their own fun
Establish a healthy “media diet” from the start knowing that the patterns you establish with your young children will predict later choices and set future patterns of media consumption. Parents of young children generally start out with some efforts to limit screen time, with the vast majority of programming being educational/interactive with the parent. Media use tends to increase significantly as children get closer to school aged and parents include fewer educational/interactive options at an age. Continue to choose content very carefully as your child grows.