Young Children and Screens: 10 Guidelines

Parents need to and can handle young children and media thoughtfully.

Posted Nov 23, 2014

What’s actually going on with young children and screens? According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, 64% of babies between 1 and 2 watch TV and videos for slightly over 2 hours daily and estimates of how much time preschoolers use screen media is between 2.2 hours to 4.6 hours a day on average.

 In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children under 2 not watch TV. In 2011, the Academy updated the recommendation to limit the exposure of children younger than 2 to any kind of screens, citing the lack of evidence there’s educational benefit (despite educational claims by game makers) and potential developmental negatives. Children benefit most developmentally from sensory-motor play and social interaction, not touching a screen or pushing buttons that light up and ding.

 In my experience, TV and screens (tablets, phones) are what occupies/calms kids when they’re grumpy/overly demanding at a bad time/need to settle down from high levels of activity. To say this is “bad” isn’t really going to change much of anything.  Saying, “Don’t” is kind of like Prohibition: it may be right but it just doesn’t work. 18 month olds in my office scroll through an iPad like a pro.

 I could say “No screens under 2,” which many of you would think is the right thing to say. But I’m pragmatic, and recognize the reality of what’s going on. Given that children are using screens, it’s important to think about how to do it. Research is new and it varies, but some basic guidelines are helpful.

 What do parents need to know? Here are some important ideas:

  1. The body’s inner clock responds to light as the signal for waking and sleeping. An electronic screen generates as much light as there would be at noon. So using videos as a way to get ready for bed is not a great idea even if the passivity quiets children down. Maybe use music instead?  Obviously, personal interaction such as reading and singing are the best.
  2. Different kinds of electronics have different impact on the brain. Watching TV is passive. Research indicates some amount of passive experience can allow time for creative daydreaming, which can lead to having ideas and making “aha” connections, although we want to have limits on passivity. Playing with an IPad is different- it's interactive and is stimulating the brain as children make choices to scroll, touch pictures, play, etc. Research suggests too much of this kind of play can be over-stimulating.
  3. Research also suggests that children don't learn language skills from TV or screens as well as from real people, which doesn't seem like it should be a surprise. Actual social interaction with people on screens is more positive. Skype or FaceTime are good – an obvious hint from this grandmother. Children's TV programs have picked up on this, and characters often talk as if they are talking to the viewer, and pause for a response as if it's two way. There's not enough research to show this is as effective as real two-way interaction.
  4. Some researchers recommend limiting screen use to thirty minutes at a time, with a 5 to 1 ratio of non-screen time to screen time for very young children. Allowing unlimited entertainment time on screens (TV, tablets, phones) is like letting toothpaste out of the tube. You won’t be able to put it back. As your child gets older, you will want to limit time so they actually play with friends, are part of the family at dinner and don’t binge during homework time. Limit time now.
  5. Think about the educational value of what you’re allowing your child to see. While research hasn’t demonstrated actual educational benefit despite the claims of manufacturers, if you’re going to allow games, use ones that are potentially good. rates games, videos, etc. in terms of educational value and appropriateness for different ages.
  6. Make sure your child has electronics-free solo playtime. A child needs to learn to entertain him or herself. Children who are “addicted” to the immediate gratification and fast pacing of electronics often complain of boredom when they could use their own creativity or interests.
  7. As your child is old enough for play dates, limit electronics use. Large motor skills of playing, creativity, social skills and exploration are not achieved by side-by-side playing on tablets.
  8. Don’t have the TV always on in the background. You can have music playing instead. Sing along.
  9. Interact with your child when using electronics rather than having screens babysit. Talk about videos, pictures on the tablet, games, etc. Fun activities can be an opportunity for interaction if you use them. Ask questions, share memories of the pictures on the phone, talk about what’s happening on TV or when they might have seen the things being named in the games. Often children’s shows have messages built in; this is a great chance to talk about them. Just sharing and short comments is fine.
  10. Most important: monitor your own use of electronics. Are you on your phone at dinner with your child? Are you attending to your child’s play or your text messages? With adults this is rude; with children this is deprivation. How often have you been at a restaurant for dinner and seen the adults on their phones while their children are basically ignored? This is a bad model and poor parenting, no other words for it.

In this electronics-driven world, we need to carefully balance children’s developmental needs with the lure of technology as entertainment, education and babysitting. There are real reasons for caution - there are already some 4 year olds being treated for addiction to screens. Children are using screens at a younger and younger age, so parents have to carefully think about what they do and don’t allow.