This is such a controversial topic. There’s people saying “let them be kids and do what they want” and then others are saying “it’s bad for their brain development”. And us first-time parents (or even parents of multiples) are left with a lingering question of should I or shouldn’t I?
Let’s get to the bottom of this and actually do some research. I’m going to list some of the findings behind screen time and then also some anecdotal experience as well. I’m primarily going to focus on babies to toddlerhood since this is where I’m at, but if I find anything relevant for older kids, I’ll be listing it below.
At the end of this, we can make our own decisions. Afterall, it’s up to us as parents/caregivers to decide how we’re raising our kids!
Scientific Studies and Findings
Children need a diverse menu of online and offline experiences, including the chance to let their minds wander. — “Screen Time and the Brain” Harvard Medical School.
I did a google search: effects of screen time on brain development. There were a lot of sponsored links that I didn’t click on but a couple that caught my eye. One was from the Harvard Medical School. I looked into this article and found it was primarily for younger children and teens. But I pulled some key takeaways that I’ll share with you.
It’s important to note that a lot of the research I found was that screen time had negative effects on our infants to young children. I was trying to find anything “good” about it and it was really hard to find scientific findings to support that argument. But anecdotally, I do believe that some screen time can be educational and have some positive effects as I will list later on in my personal experience.
Back to the Harvard article, they spoke with pediatrician, Michael Rich, M.D. He spoke on ways screens can be harmful for children and teens such as late night texting or watching TV. But he also said that “Boredom is the space in which creativity and imagination happen.”
What I get from this notion is that when we have our kids off screens they’ll be “bored”. Being bored isn’t necessarily a horrible state to be in. This is when our imagination and creativity comes alive. Boredom opens the door for new games and new ways to play. I was bored a lot growing up and I remember feeling that way, but then coming up with something to do to bide my time before my parents came home from work. Without fail, I found my fun. Most of the time it was outside.
My takeaway is that boredom can lead to fun times, so welcome it!
“As adults we go back and forth between two dimensions and three dimensions very fluently. For kids that’s actually a really difficult task and it takes them a long time until they’re able to really go back and forth and match what’s in two dimensions on a screen with what’s actually in three dimensions in the real world.” -Dr Lytle (https://childmind.org/article/value-screen-time-toddlers-preschoolers/)
I found this to be interesting. As we’re becoming more advanced in our animation technology, I’m wondering how this statement is going to age and will screen time become a good thing?
Animation has turned into more 3D modeling instead of 2D hand drawn/digital drawn images. I’m not sure if this is particularly better for kids nowadays but I wonder if it makes it harder for them to distinguish between real world and TV if they see things in 3D already?
The shows he watches are educational. He doesn’t watch for too long either, but I do notice him interacting with his shows as his language develops.
There are two things that stand out about the shows he learns from:
- They have real people.
- They are directly talking to the camera.
Maybe that’s the 3D world Dr. Lytle is referring to?
“They need more time, more practice and more opportunities for learning, so things that are fast and quick or brief really don’t match their style of engagement. Or their style of cognition.” — Dr. Cruger (https://childmind.org/article/value-screen-time-toddlers-preschoolers/)
I think there’s a point to this quote and I agree. Toddlers especially need more time to process what is being thrown at them. If we are quickly changing scenes or telling a different story, it is harder for them to pay attention down the road.
I’ve realized that when we slow down and take our time showing how to do something, my son picks it up easier. And that makes me worried as I see more and more kid shows are using quick transitions and jump cuts. I like watching Bluey with my son because the transitions aren’t so abrupt and each camera angle lasts longer than 2 seconds. We can see the facial expressions of the characters and sometimes have an up close view of their reactions. It’s all slow-paced.
There were other comments on how parental interactions are more valuable than screen time. And I have to agree with this. There is nothing more mentally stimulating than a deep and personal connection with someone you love.
As my son grows up we’ve been allowing more and more screen time. It doesn’t total more than two hours in a day. He spends most of his non-screen time playing with his cars/toys, outside, or running errands with me. He has an active imagination already and is putting his toys through situations that are hilarious and exciting to see. Usually he uses this time to work through real life problems like potty training, sharing his toys, apologizing when a toy gets hurt, or using words he just learned.
I’ve noticed, however, the more screen time he has been getting the worse his tantrums have become. Some days I cut the screen time to only mornings and we spend the rest of the day playing with toys, coloring, playing with sensory toys or going to the playground. He has less tantrums those days and goes to bed a lot easier as well.
Although I do not mind him watching the shows he watches (Songs for Littles, Blippi, Bluey and Dino Ranch) as experts deem them to be very educational, I do cringe whenever he seems adamant about watching them. The demanding to watch his shows have become a thing now. We’re working on asking nicely instead of demanding which is going as well as you think it can go with a two-year old.
But the one thing I am in awe of is that he will say “All done TV,” when he’s had enough. Sometimes it’s just one episode and he’ll say it and move on to his toys or something else he wants to direct attention to.
He also isn’t interested in watching movies right now. I know some toddlers his age has seen the entire Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks catalog, yet he refuses to let even one of them start up. He used to request the movie “Cars” around 18 months of age, but after about a month he stopped and since then he flat out says “No” when we suggest watching it.
I would like to think there is a direct correlation to us limiting his screen time in his infancy to toddler years to what we’re experiencing now, but it could just be by chance that his attention span is short at this age. We would always say the TV was “all done” after 30 minutes. He cannot seem to process TV for longer than a 30 minute period (unless its Songs for Littles). Which is why two hours a day is our maximum time limit as he will only watch 20–30 minutes at a time.
During lunch and dinner we make sure the TV is off and there is a personal connection between us when we sit at the table. I have to remind myself to not use my phone during this time as well. I do enjoy having conversations with my son about random things that come to his mind while we eat and dinner conversations turn into music time where we sing whatever song that pops into his head that day.
I still haven’t gotten him a tablet — nor do I want to any time soon (that’s one more thing to carry around everywhere). We don’t mind handing over our phones if we are out in public and he needs to tune out the crowds. He is a curious toddler though and will most likely give back the phone so he can look around to see everything and look at what other people are doing. He’ll always ask me questions about what he sees and we have a conversation about it now.
Again, I don’t know how this correlates to screen time vs no screen time. But from my anecdotal experience, and for our family personally, it seems like the less screen time he had the better the day goes.
And then sometimes there are days that I need a good distraction to get things done… and screens definitely help with that.
In the end it is up to the parent/ caretaker on whether or not they want to limit screen times.
Some people feel that it is a great learning tool to use every day as it could help improve speech and reading (putting on captions). There’s also some really great learning apps on tablets for preschoolers.
And there’s some people that feel screens are too over stimulating and can ruin brain development in younger children. So much so that they will not even have a TV on in their home while their children are awake.
But I think at the end of the day we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves to make the “right choice”. Personally, I think everything should be done in moderation. So yes, if you want to do screen time, do it. But also recognize how long the TV or tablet has been in use. Pair that with other activities during the week (for example, going to the park or the library) and I think overall the “negative” effects will be counterbalanced.
We, as adults, are always on our devices and as technology advances it will become harder to ward off our toddlers and young children from such devices.
Find a healthy balance. Make it a learning tool. Most importantly have conversations about how these devices can affect our brain and our body over time.
*Edited 2/22/23 to change the context around the word “deem” to minimize any misunderstanding in the sentence.