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Screen time is such a huge part of life in the 21st century, and as parents, we need to be intentional about how we approach digital media use for and around our littles, right from the start.
I remember sitting in the pediatrician’s office a few weeks after my first baby was born in 2014. During one of my baby’s checkups, she informed me that babies shouldn’t have any screen time before the age of 2.
I was actually shocked.
I hadn’t given screen time much thought before this conversation, but at the time, it was still common for people to use Baby Einstein videos. I thought TV was good for babies. But she said that screen time was actually harmful for babies and toddlers under the age of 2.
No screen time before age 2? Okay, challenge accepted. Move aside, Baby Einstein… I was going to be a screen-free mom raising a screen-free child.
And it turned out that avoiding screen time wasn’t that hard. My husband and I got used to not watching TV around our son, and we never gave him any tablets, phones, or other electronics with screens to play with. And for the most part, we didn’t let him see our phones or computers when we used them, either. It meant more time playing with toys, reading together, having family dance parties, and being outdoors. It was kind of great!
It was easy to avoid screens at home, but it wasn’t as easy when we stepped out of the house. As a new mom trying to do everything right, I experienced a lot of unnecessary guilt and stress when I was faced with screens in the outside world. I’d quickly grow annoyed if we were seated at a table in a restaurant with views of the TV, and my son, being naturally curious, would swivel his head and watch the MMA fight (ugh) or basketball game, or the daytime news playing in the waiting room at my doctor’s office.
I also distinctly remember visiting my relatives in Michigan when my son was 14 months old. My uncle is a big football fan, and the TV was on for the entire weekend. It seemed like they never turned it off.
Well, I silently died inside. I was so worried about my son being exposed to screens, that I pretty much stressed the entire time. (Yeah, I was not a great houseguest that trip.)
Now, several years later, I look back at my first-time mama self and laugh. I was trying so hard to be a screen-free mom, but I could have relaxed a little. And I should have realized that passive screen time exposure in moderation for a couple of days wouldn’t have a lasting impact on my son.
As with most things, it’s not the occasional exposures that leave a lasting effect. It’s how you handle screens day-to-day over the course of the early years that really counts.
With that being said, I wanted to write this article to help you not only learn about the official digital media guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), but also how to effectively manage them in the real world. I want you to know that regular use vs. occasional acute exposure are two totally different things.
We’ll talk about the implications of too much media for little ones. And we’ll take a look at how to navigate more specific types of screen use, such as eBooks and video chatting. At the end of it all, you will be feeling more confident about forming your own screen time policies for your family.
The Official Screen Time Guidelines for 0 to 5-Year-Olds
The first five years of life are a time of critical brain development. These are the years when little brains learn to establish meaningful relationships and set the stage for lifetime health behaviors. It’s the time period when the most significant portion of your child’s language, motor, memory, and social-emotional skills develop.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that screens can negatively impact a child’s development. Young children need hands-on, sensory experiences like playing with toys, stacking blocks, and exploring their environment. They need social interaction, engagement, and responsiveness from caregivers and peers. While moving their bodies and observing emotional responses as they interact with people, they build their experiential knowledge.
In short, babies and young children need real life, not screens.
Research shows that infants and toddlers younger than 18–24 months cannot learn from digital media the way they can from a caregiver. This age group is unable to transfer knowledge to their “3-dimensional experience” (aka real life), especially without sharing the media content experience with an adult. Despite claims of apps and shows being “educational,” the research simply doesn’t support the use of screens for learning in children under 2.
However, a shift happens for children ages 3–5. As their brains mature, they are better able to process information delivered through a screen. But, content should still be carefully selected. Only high-quality, educational media geared to that particular age group (like Sesame Street) has the ability to teach social language and reading skills. And the bottom line—real life is still going to do it much better.
Let’s look at the specific guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The organization took into account all of the most current research on screen and media use in young children to formulate these recommendations.
Here’s the high-level summary:
|Children under 2 years old||Discourage all screen use except occasional supervised video chatting|
|Children 2 to 5 years old||Limit media use to one hour per day of carefully selected, high-quality content, ideally shared with an adult|
Now, let’s look at the recommendations a little more in detail.
Infants, babies, and toddlers under 24 months
Officially, the AAP discourages all screen use for children under 2 years old—the exception being very limited, shared-screen experiences such as video-chatting with a family member.
Toddlers between 15–18 months
Research shows that toddlers in this age range can learn from high-quality educational media, but only if their caregiver participates and reteaches the content. Even so, screen time should be discouraged for this age group.
Toddlers between 18–24 months
In this age range, researchers see another jump in a toddler’s ability to learn from educational media. It still relies on participation from a caregiver, and toddlers this young continue to have difficulty transferring the knowledge to their 3-D world. If you want to introduce media this early, do so sparingly, limit to developmentally appropriate educational content, and avoid solo use.
Children between 2–5 years old
At this point, researchers see a shift in the brain. Young children are capable of learning from well-designed, educational content, like age-appropriate shows on PBS. However, guidelines state that screen use should be limited to one hour per day, and media should be carefully selected.
What About Video Chatting?
In their digital media guidelines, the AAP repeatedly mentions video chatting as an exception to the no-screen rule. They say it should be done sparingly, but that it may be okay because research supports the claim that not all screen use is equal, and because video chatting is a responsive and interactive activity, it is different than passive media use.
Let’s take a look at the research. A study published in 2016 observed that babies and toddlers 12–25 months old were able to form social relationships and learn on-screen when video chatting with a live partner (as opposed to just watching pre-recorded videos). After just one week of exposure to a video chatting partner, the children preferred and recognized their partner, learned novel patterns, and learned novel words.
Why does this matter? Well, in today’s world, many of us live far from our baby’s grandparents and extended family. Video chatting can be a wonderful way for your little one to build a relationship with out of town relatives and connect with them between visits. It can also take some of the pressure off of you trying to avoid all types of screen use and allow well-informed exceptions in the form of FaceTime.
The only thing I would add to this is that, while video chatting is a far better form of media use than TV or tablets due to its interactive nature, your child would still be exposed to blue light from the smartphone or device you’re using. So even though it is a significant improvement over passively watching TV, I personally wouldn’t overdo video chatting.
What About eBooks?
Reading to your child is one of the best things you can do to improve their language exposure and help their development. Reading boosts language development, literacy skills, social-emotional skills, and more. Reading together provides a time to bond and connect with your baby and has so many benefits—but do eBooks count?
The main problem with reading eBooks instead of real books is that most of them are accompanied by moving pictures, sounds, and other special effects. These are distracting to children and can lead to them missing the point of the story. What’s more, in a recent study, when researchers recorded parent and child interactions as they read an eBook vs. a print book (whether the eBook had animated effects or not), they observed less back and forth dialogue about the story.
With this in mind, printed books are definitely preferred and should be used when possible. However, if you do decide to use a tablet or other device to read an eBook, try to choose the ones without added effects and remember to ask comprehension questions and engage with the book the same way you would if it was in print.
What are the Negative Effects of Screen Time on Children?
Understanding the explicit risks associated with too much media use is important. For one, it helps you see why the recommendations are the way they are. What’s more, it’s motivating as a parent to adhere to the guidance when you understand the negative impacts demonstrated by the research.
This information comes from the AAP’s policy statement on media use for children.
- Delays in development: Population-based research shows a relationship between excessive screen use during the early childhood years and developmental delays. These include delays in cognitive learning, language, and social/emotional behavior. There is also an association with poorer executive functioning skills. The effects seem to be compounded if the media contains violent content, or is coupled with inconsistent parenting. What’s interesting is that research shows an increase in screen use for infants and children with social-emotional delays or self-regulation problems, which in turn can perpetuate the delays.
- Behavior problems: This implication is linked specifically to media containing violence. The AAP uses the term “virtual violence” to encompass any media violence—shows, video games, apps, and more. And not surprisingly, research links an increase in aggressive behavior to this type of media. Additionally, experts see other types of behavior problems such as anxiety, nervousness, and confusion in children who view this type of media.
- Negative impact on sleep: There exists a definite link between the presence of screens and minutes of sleep per night in children. What’s more, even infants that view screen media during the evening have shorter nighttime sleep duration than nights without exposure.
- Association with obesity: The AAP reports that heavy media use in early childhood relates to a slight increase in BMI among those children. This is thought to lead to obesity later in life because of the negative health habits formed, and activities children miss out on with increased media use in the early childhood years.
As you can see, there are so many important reasons to limit your child’s screen-time exposure. Isn’t it shocking how much of an impact digital media can have on your child’s brain and overall development?
The Effects of Blue Light Exposure on Children
Do your eyes feel tired and dry if you stare at a computer or smartphone for too long? Research indicates that children’s retinas absorb even more blue light than adults, which is what is being emitted from flat-screen TVs, tablets, laptops, and smartphones.
But what is blue light? Let’s go back to ROYGBIV for a moment—sunlight is composed of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet light. Even though all of these colors are combined, and we see white light, all of these lights have different wavelengths. For example, red rays have longer wavelengths and less energy than blue rays. Blue rays have shorter wavelengths with more energy. And apparently, children also absorb more blue light than adults, which exposes their eyes to more of the high-energy wavelength and increases their risk of negative consequences.
Long-term exposure to blue light from electronic devices can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythms. In children, it disrupts sleep patterns and can cause headaches, blurry vision, and dry eyes. There are various types of glasses with filters that are said to prevent some of the blue light absorption, but their ability to counteract these problems still needs to be studied.
16 Tips and Reminders About Screen Time for Babies and Children
I want to highlight some tips and reminders for you as you navigate media use with your little one. These are things to keep in mind while you formulate your own screen time policies, navigate screen time with your little ones as they grow, and find yourself faced with screens out in the world.
- Be aware of your screen use around your baby and children: Even if your baby isn’t looking at the screen, they may still be exposed to the blue light from your device. Try to minimize your own screen use around your little ones. (Easier said than done, I know!) Additionally, and I’m not trying to lay on the guilt here, but any time that you are engaged with a screen is a missed opportunity for engagement with your little ones. If you are distracted by continually looking at your phone during meals, in the car, or even at the playground, you miss experiencing and participating in what your child is doing. It’s the social and emotional interactions that impact their development in a big way—and don’t you want those to be with you?
- Have screen-free times: Avoiding screens entirely can be challenging for some families; try setting certain times of day or areas of your home as screen-free. Meal times and play time are good places to start, and keeping screens out of bedrooms and playrooms is also strongly recommended.
- Don’t let others pressure you to introduce screens: Receiving electronic gifts or having family members judge you about your screen limits can make you doubt yourself. But guess what? Who cares! You’ve read the literature and made an informed decision for your family, and it’s your decision to make. (Plus, I’ve found that when someone else tries to guilt you for being strict about something, it’s usually coming from a place of their own guilt.) If all else fails, justJust show them the AAP article, and what can they say?
- Don’t stress about acute exposure: With that in mind, don’t stress about short and intense screen exposure that may happen when visiting family or friends’ homes, or during the holidays. It’s that long-term daily exposure that has lasting effects.
- When you do introduce media, do it with intention: When you decide it’s the right time, be mindful to choose highly educational and developmentally appropriate content and plan to engage with your child during their media use.
- Let your toddler feel bored: It can be easy to fall into the trap of putting on a show when your toddler is bored. Remind yourself that it’s not your job, or a screen’s job, to always keep your child entertained. Feeling bored sparks imagination and fosters your little one’s ability to play independently in their own world.
- Don’t use screens as a calm-down tactic: Experts stress the importance of avoiding this. Using screens to help your child calm down doesn’t allow them to develop the emotional regulation skills they need to be successful in school and other social settings.
- Avoid background media: When you aren’t watching the TV, turn it off. Even in the background, media is distracting to parents and children and can hinder the quality of interactions between you and your child.
- Don’t use screens during mealtimes: Allowing media during mealtimes can prevent your child from following satiety cues and lead to overeating. Sitting down together for a meal is one of the few times in the day when you are face-to-face and a significant missed opportunity for social engagement.
- Don’t use screens too close to bedtime: Because of the negative effect blue light has on sleep quality, the AAP recommends avoiding screen use within one hour of bedtime.
- Use video chatting as a way to stay in touch with far-away family: Video chatting is still being researched, but it seems that it’s an exception to most media guidelines because of the real-time engagement and responsiveness. Video calling is a wonderful way for your child to form and maintain interactive relationships with relatives that live far away.
- Read eBooks in the same way you’d read an in-print book: If you decide to read eBooks to your child, make a point to read the book just as you would read a book in print. For example, ask questions, talk about the pictures, and flip back in the book to remind your child of details. (But better yet, try to stick with the old fashioned printed version as much as possible.)
- Be wary of claims that shows or apps are ‘educational’: This term isn’t carefully regulated, and many apps and shows that claim to be educational simply aren’t. The AAP emphasizes shows and apps created by PBS and Sesame Workshop.
- Choose your child’s programs wisely. When you do allow your little ones to watch TV or use tablet devices, be choosy about the programs and apps you expose them to. It’s easy to assume that if something is on The Disney Channel or Nick Jr., it would have to be appropriate for children. But that’s not true at all, and it’ll be you who has the highest standards for what your children are exposed to.
- Consider using blue-blocking glasses. Growing in popularity are blue light blocking glasses that help to filter out blue light. While these aren’t a fix-all for the problems with screen time use in children, there is the possibility that they may help, provided that you follow the other guidelines in this article.
- Keep screens at a distance. Keep devices at least 16 inches away from your baby to reduce strain and fatigue of the eye muscles.
Take an Informed Stance on Screen Time for Your Kids
As a parent, you will be faced with lots of decisions about how to do things in your family. Things like what kinds of behavior management strategies interest you, how you’d like to approach sleep, and how you want to introduce solid foods will all be big decisions. Now that you are more educated on the topic of screen time and early childhood, you can make an informed policy for your home.
Discuss the research and your opinions with your partner and other family members. Make a decision about how you’d like to handle media use. Don’t forget to consider your own screen and media use around your children and each other. With the prevalence of screens and media in our society, it can be difficult to escape, so approaching this with intention and planning is an important step toward getting a handle on its effects within your family.