It’s no secret that screens are a huge part of everyday life. Phones, tablets, computers, TVs -- they’re everywhere! Depending on who you ask, they might be either the greatest invention or the total downfall of modern society.
The truth, of course, is neither! Digital devices can be a valuable asset, even a necessity. But too much use -- too much “screen time” -- can be unhealthy, especially when we spend it on the wrong things. That’s especially true for children.
But is all screen time bad for little ones? If not, what’s the right way to use it, and how much is too much?
Let’s look at some of the facts.
1. What’s the big deal, anyway?
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released some fairly strict guidelines on screen time for children (see below). Why? Because research shows that while children do learn from interactive and even passive screen time, they learn much more from real-world experiences and social interaction.
We know this because young children show what they’ve learned through language and play, a process called transfer of learning. In study after study, children who are shown something on a screen show less of this transferred learning than children who get the same information through a live interaction -- in other words, the screen creates what’s called a transfer deficit.
In fact, screens even show a transfer deficit when compared to books! This might be because parents read with their young children, making it a more hands-on and interactive experience. There really is something about turning pages that makes a difference.
Finally, screen time just plain cuts down on time for other things, such as physical activity and social play, that are critical in early childhood. This also puts them at risk of weight gain, troubled/insufficient sleep, and even attention problems.
2. No screens for babies -- with one BIG exception
Now let’s get into the actual guidelines.
The AAP recommends children under 18 months have no exposure to screens at all… unless they’re being used for video chatting with friends and family.
While face-to-face is still better than Facetime, video chat lets children have meaningful interactions and form relationships with people they might not get to see every day.
So, feel free to let your baby say hi to Grandma and Grandpa on your next call!
3. Next, make screen time interactive
After 18 months, you can start to introduce screen time, though it shouldn’t last more than 1 hour a day until your child is 5 or 6 years old. More importantly, whether it’s playing with an app, reading an e-book, or watching a TV show, this shouldn’t be passive solo time for your child. Make sure their screen time involves just as much language-rich social interaction as their offline play time. If the show or app doesn’t have a social component, treat it like a book you’re reading together and ask questions, add your own comments, and so on.
Also, choose high-quality content that’s meaningful and relevant to them, so you can connect it to the real world. For example, if you play a cooking game, follow it up with some hands-on time in the kitchen! Or find a show that reinforces the things they’re learning in their day-to-day life, then talk about it with them.
For more ideas, you can use Zero to Three’s “E-AIMS” model as a guide. When in doubt, remember that your child’s screen time should be Engaging, Actively Involved, Meaningful, and Social.
4. Watch your own screen time!
Pay attention to the way you use screens, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I truly present when I’m with my child, or am I distracted by my devices?
- Is my child paying attention to what they’re doing, or the TV noise in the background?
- Am I modelling appropriate, responsible screen habits for my child?
We all have the best intentions when we try to multitask. Yes, we say, I can definitely pay attention to my phone and this other thing at the same time.
The truth is, attention just doesn’t work that way. Technological interference -- technoference, as it’s called by many researchers -- almost always leads to distraction.
Studies show that even the most well-intended parents tend to have fewer and shorter interactions with their children when technoference gets in the way.
Even passive technoference can have an impact, and not only on parents. Research indicates that babies and toddlers have a shorter attention span for playing when a TV is on in the same room, even if they’re not paying attention to it.
For optimal bonding with your child, and so they learn good screen habits when they’re older, keep the phones tucked away and the TV off until bedtime. Then you can scroll and binge to your heart’s content.
5. Okay, now relax.
To quote a great philosopher of the last century: “Life finds a way.”
When it comes to parenting, life often finds a way to get in the way. You won’t always be able to keep screens out of your baby’s life -- that’s okay! If the phone rings five times in a row while you’re playing, take the call.
If Grandma lets your toddler have a movie marathon, forgive her (and maybe have your own conversation about screen time, later on).
The most important thing is to keep these guidelines in mind, as well as the deeper meaning behind them: when you’re with your child, try to make your time together focused, interactive, and intentional. If you absolutely must answer that email, then you must.
Once it’s sent, put the phone down, look into your baby’s eyes, and give them your very biggest smile just for them.