Screen Time: What’s the real deal on TV, smartphones, tablets & more for children?

New research demonstrates what we’ve known for a while: Interaction is key to building brains!

Way back when I was a child we had two TV’s. Both were black and white and picked up three, maybe four channels if we tilted the antenna just so. There was no such thing as a remote!

Once I had my own children the nuchild-1183465mber of sets in the house increased, and computers were introduced while my kids were young. This was before the age of smart phones or tablets. At school they had computers but didn’t have much to do with our home computer until they were in upper elementary school. Once high school hit, then college and grad school, screens were a part of their everyday life. Today, they remain fully integrated into their personal and professional lives. I know that many of you are from that generation; you grew up with technology and screens of many shapes, sizes and purposes. With this rapid assimilation of screens we have begun to depend on them to both educate and entertain even our youngest children.

That dependence leads many people to wonder about how positive or negative screen time is for early learners. When screens are an integral part of family life, what impact do they have on how infants, toddlers, preschoolers and schoo-age children learn? Let’s look at how screen time impacts young learners and how we might use it intentionally.


Research, Recommendations & the Power of Interaction

In 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterated its recommendation discouraging parents from using any media with children under 24 months of age. Their statement cited three reasons: 1) a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age two; 2) a few studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems; and 3) some studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on televisions. From a “do no harm” perspective, the group’s reliance on this research makes sense, and much of it is based on respectable peer-reviewed work in medicine and health. While they have released updated guidelines more recently, their stance remains no screen time for children under two and limiting screen time for older children to two hours per day or less.

Today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices, most of it passive. Next time you are driving at night just notice how many vehicles have screens being used by children of all ages! We know that most children under two are using screens. We also know that how these screens are used makes a significant difference. If a parent or caregiver is interacting and watching with a child, conversation happens, explanations are given, and facial expressions and social cues are observed. If it is a passive experience, with no nearby adult chatting with or guiding the child, little or no learning occurs. For children to utilize and develop their frontal lobes, they must interact with real human beings–chatting, playing, touching and observing, the instinctive activities that most of us do.


So is screen time really all that bad? The short answer is, well, kinda!

Children learn and develop best in an environment full of friendly spaces, plenty of warm and loving interaction with a caregiver, appropriate stimulation, room to move and encouragement to try new things. Screens can play a part in their growth and development but should be thoughtfully integrated in small ways and always accompanied by interaction and involvement of the parent or caregiver.

So sit with that child and talk, read a book, play and maybe interact with a screen together every now and then. The key is to use our human impulse to connect and interact, no matter the book, screen, tree or ball in front of us.