Keeping Connected: Tips on Screen Time Use

We often worry about the appropriate exposure of our babies and toddlers to screens. Is is ok for them to hold and play with our smart phones once in a while? How much exposure is too much? Are there any benefits in using age appropriate apps for them?

I will address these questions, but I would like to add another question we may not wonder about as often: Is the amount I spend on my smart phone around my little one affecting him in any way? 

Research tells us that young children learn by “real” interactions with their environment. They learn about the world by mouthing toys and objects, by exploring their surroundings, and by interacting with adults and other children. All 5 senses are typically involved in these interactions. We also know that most of the brain develops during the first two years of life (by age 2 the brain reaches 85% of its adult size). What we don’t yet know is the effect screens may have in shaping the brain.

Author and Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair writes in her book The Big Disconnect - Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital age: “Just because your baby can tap a touch screen to change a picture does not mean that he should…. In fact, research suggests that the process of tapping a screen or keypad and engaging with the screen activity may itself be rerouting brain development in ways that eliminate development of essential other neural connections your child needs to develop reading, writing, and higher level thinking later…. Screen time may contribute to uneven brain development, as screen based activities have been shown to stimulate visual processing more heavily that other parts of the sensorium.”

Keeping this in mind, the reality is that young children are exposed to screens in our everyday lives. Zero to Three has recently published guidelines for screen time for ages 0-3. Here is the summary of their recommendations:

  • Limit screen time to maximize the time young children spend interacting with the “real” world.
  • If and when children are interacting with a screen or viewing a screen, participate in the experience, make observations, and connect those experiences with the real world.
  • Choose the content of the screen time carefully and avoid fast paced programming.
  • Avoid “background” TV whenever possible.
  • Avoid any kind of screen exposure before nap and bed times (the light coming from the screen is stimulating for the brain and makes going to sleep harder).
  • Avoid giving food/snacks while watching TV or a tablet (there are studies that show a link between obesity and watching TV while eating).

Regarding our use of electronics in front of our children here are a couple of compelling thoughts. Everything a young child needs to learn during the first years of life comes from interacting with the environment and with people; when we add a smart phone, a tablet, or a laptop computer in the mix we are compromising the essence of that interaction. Studies show that infants are distressed when they look at a parent or main caregiver to establish a connection and the grown-up is unresponsive or uninterested (and we are unresponsive when we text or check our email or Facebook page). We also know that babies and toddlers are more interested in the objects they see us using as supposed to objects we don’t use - thus, the more they see us in our devices, the more interest they will have in them. Lastly, research shows that when parents are distracted by screens, young children tend to get their attention by negative behaviors which, in turn, provoke negative and more punitive reactions from parents.

In a nutshell here is my advice: have your child play and interact with the real three-dimensional world as much as possible and make the point of spending time with your little one exclusively without a screen being involved. Texts, Facebook updates, and emails are not urgent. They might feel urgent to us, but for the most part they can wait. Think about making times during the day in which you check your devices and having times during the day that are device free. These set times have the added benefit of becoming a great example of healthier use of electronics as your child gets older (believe me: I am the parent of a 14 and a 12 year old).

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