Getting our very first TV was a huge event: my sister and I could watch black-and-white shows, but only around bedtime. Fast forward a few decades, and now screens are everywhere (at work, in school, and at home; even in our bedrooms), available 24/7 and used for an endless variety of purposes.
Right before the first lockdowns of 2020, a nationally representative survey found that about half of the parents said whether or not their infant or toddler (ages 0 to 2) had ever used a smartphone. About 60% of 3- to 8-year-olds had done so. TV was still the most commonly used screen. Most parents (84%) felt confident in knowing how much screen time was appropriate for their children, yet most were concerned that their children (71%) and/or themselves (56%) spent too much time on a screen. This was before the pandemic! After the first lockdowns in 2020, screen use doubled in adolescents and a study across 12 different countries found that it went up in infants and toddlers as well. Screen use was higher for older toddlers, when parents were on screens more, or when parents had fewer years of education. Now that we are coming out of the period of pandemic isolation, it is a good time to recalibrate and consider if current amounts and types of screen time are really the most beneficial.
All in all, it’s safe to say that screens have entered the everyday lives of all of us, including babies and toddlers. What does that mean for their development? Are some screens better than others? And how much is too much? Many professionals, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend no screen time at all under 18-24 months of age, except for video chats; and only 1 hour of high-quality screen time per day, co-viewed with parents. These recommendations clearly seem to be out of line with the current reality in most households. So why do pediatricians have such strict recommendations? To answer this question, let’s consider what babies, toddlers, and preschoolers need for healthy development:
- Loving, supportive relationships with adult caregivers that protect them and help them feel emotionally safe. Small children often have big feelings, and they need their adults to help them regulate those feelings.
- Support for exploration and learning. Babies and toddlers naturally learn by actively doing. Their bodies need to be able to move freely, so they can get to know the world in 3D. Babies learn by putting things into their mouths, touching and exploring, making things move, moving their own bodies around, and more.
- Direct communication through nonverbal signs, gestures, and language. Hearing language around them can help them learn to speak, but they learn even more when adults talk directly with them, in a clear voice intonation, and using a level of complexity that is just right for the child’s developmental level.
- Physical health and safety, predictable routines, and safe spaces to move, learn, and rest in.
Now, let’s see how screens might help or hinder these developmental needs. First, can screens interfere with the development of supportive relationships and emotion regulation? One recent study found a small correlation between more screen time and higher externalizing (such as aggression) and internalizing problems (such as anxiety) in children up to age 12. A study with babies and toddlers (ages 6 to 24 months) found that those with more screen time showed lower social competence (e.g., less empathy, sharing, imitating, and compliance), and this was related to playing less with their parents. The more screen time, the less time there is left for parent-child play, games, singing and dancing, etc. And when screens are used to calm a fussy baby or an upset preschooler, this can teach the lesson that the child needs a screen in order to calm down; and does not teach children co-regulate emotions with a caregiver (and calm down with another human, or without an external tool).
Do babies and young children learn from screens? It depends! Passive screens, such as TV, can be educational after about age 2, when children begin to understand stories. For example, preschoolers can learn prosocial behaviors from shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. From around age 2, children can also better ‘translate’ information from the 2D to the 3D. Before age 2, toddlers have a hard time understanding that what they see in 2D (on a screen) is the same as what they see in the real world (3D). Babies and toddlers also don’t learn language from screens. Interestingly, sometimes parents believe that their infants learn from educational videos, while independent observers have shown that these videos do not stimulate language development (and maybe even hinder it). The best learning takes place via direct contact with adults, because they can focus their attention on the same things as the baby, and adjust their language in real-time. For example, toddlers learn words much better while reading books (but not electronic ones) or building blocks together, because parents talk with their babies! Lastly, children may also miss out on physical movement, outdoor time, and sleep, when there is more screen time. A recent study found that toddlers had more difficulty sleeping when they watched screens shortly before bed (and 80% did so!).
Screens can also be fun, of course, especially when parents can watch with their children. One study found that 15-month-old toddlers were 19 times more likely to learn from a touchscreen when their parent was coaching them! We can use screens to sing along and dance, or just to have a quiet moment. It’s all about balance. Screens are here to stay!