Why All the Gloom and Doom About Kids and Screens?

Why All the Gloom and Doom About Kids and Screens?

As if  parents need another thing to feel guilty about, the American Academy of Pediatrics standards of no screens before 2 years is the golden rule of babyhood. But, it seems arbitrary. Why is 23 months and 29 days not okay for screens but my 24 months and 1-day old child can watch two hours?! This seems crazy.  

I agree that they are in need of some revision. But, take it from a mom and psychologist who has been there, there are some really good reasons to limit screens as much as possible for young children (under five). Rather than promoting an arbitrary rule, I am going to review this research. Parents can use this information to make an informed decision.

We are going to break down why there is gloom and doom about screens and young kids. Children’s brains demonstrate plasticity, meaning change occurs based on the input received. This is one reason why it is easy for an infant to learn two languages and speak like a native in both. Yet adults must engage in a much more laborious process and our accent will always give us away. This is also one reason why human babies are so dependent. They require socialization through the love and input provided by  one or more caregivers. Other external environmental sources influence brain development, as well.

Screens are one form of developmental input. Let’s review how they can affect your child.  Here are nine research studies about screens and young children that every parent should know. 

  1. Background noise.

    When children are babies, the television is often not on for them. Rather it is in the category of “background noise” for the child, meaning the program is on for the adults in the room while the child plays or cuddles nearby.  Surveys suggest young children experience as much four hours of background television per day.  Children under 2 years of age are watching and being influenced by this “background noise.” Research findings suggest that background television slows language development, decreases the quality and quantity of children’s play, and results in poorer infant-caregiver relationships.

  1. Educational DVDS.

    Parents often choose educational DVDs to help their children. However, makers of educational DVDs have been forced by the Federal Trade Commission to remove the word “educational” from their materials and are fined hefty fees for their inappropriate and misleading marketing.  One research study demonstrated that for each hour of “educational” DVDs  infants viewed, they understood 8-16 fewer words.

  1. Bobo doll and aggression.

    If you have taken an introductory Psychology course, you have likely heard about Albert Bandura and his Bobo doll studies (Bandura, A. (1975). Social Learning & Personality Development. New York, NY, USA:Holt, Rinehart & Winston). He had children watch a video of an adult behaving violently towards a doll and (surprise, surprise), the children were then violent towards the same doll when given the opportunity.  The children even developed new ways of being violent towards the doll that were not demonstrated in the video (using a play gun). It may seem obvious, but this was revolutionary for a variety of reasons in the 1960’s.  It is important as a caregiver to understand that your child is going to “try out” behaviors they see portrayed on the screen.

  1. Content analyses and TV violence in children’s programming.

    Okay, so you won’t show your children violent or aggressive programming? This may be harder than you think.  A content analysis in 2007 found that children’s television programming tends to be more violent than adults’.  Over two-thirds of all children’s programming contained violence. And, it was most often portrayed as funny and consequences were not depicted.

  1. What happens when television is introduced where it has never been before?

    Even more evidence is added to the link between aggression in children and television programming. In the early 1980’s, there were towns in Canada which did not have any television programming, but would be receiving it soon. A researcher capitalized on this and studied the children in these towns before and after the introduction of television.  Her most robust finding was an intense increase in aggression in the children.  The aggression was observed by researchers using a coding system and checklist ratings by children and their teachers showed agreement. Aggressive acts between children doubled.

  1. Longitudinal research on weight gain.

    The link between screens and weight gain has been well-documented. It has a couple of pathways: children who are watching screens are not being active, children who watch screens consume more calories, and they are exposed to high-calorie, poor nutrition foods. The link is so strong that longitudinal research has demonstrated a link between viewing television in childhood and excess weight in adulthood.

  1. Attention problems in school.

    Children can stare at the same television screen for an unbelievably long time. However, that is not a demonstration of their great attention span. In fact, it’s likely just the opposite. Many children’s entertainment programs have incredibly fast screen shifts. They are changing so quickly that your child’s brain is trying to keep up. Research has demonstrated a link between entertainment television viewing prior to age 3 and attention problems once the children enter formal schooling. For each hour of television viewing, the child has a 10% greater risk for attention problems.

  1. Decreased executive functioning.

    The research on the relationship between screens in young children and attention has gone even further. Researchers showed children entertainment television (Sponge Bob Square Pants) and found that following the video, children performed significantly worse on tasks which required impulse control, delaying gratification, and planning.

  1. TV and Sleep.

    One thing we all want our young children to do is to sleep well.  Research on screens and sleep is incredibly clear: screens lead to more irregular sleep patterns, later bedtimes, and decreased sleep overall.  And, this is not one research study either.  This is a review of over 67 research studies analyzing the relationship between screens and sleep.

So, there are actually research  findings that  suggest that keeping your child screen-free for the first few years of their lives may do them a great deal of good.  And, there is no evidence to suggest that being screen-free will cause them any harm.  If “First, do no harm,” applies not only to doctors but also to parents, we would do well to turn off the screen.  There are plenty of other ways for children to fill their time. Another benefit of being screen-free that I have noticed is that my children do not have any screen “habits.” My 4-year-old daughter never asks for screens; she hasn’t built a dependency on a screen to fill her time while I prepare dinner, nor during car rides or downtime.  Being screen-free when they are babies actually makes it a lot easier to enforce screen limits as they get older. As children age, certainly screens will be a part of their lives. Armed with this information, a parent can carefully choose programming that minimizes the negative effects.

Which study is the most shocking to you?  Do you notice any other negative effects of screens on young children? Share with us in the comments section.


About the Author: Meghan Owenz

Meghan Owenz

Screen-Free Mom is a psychologist, writer and a university psychology instructor. She has her Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Miami and Master’s in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University. She is happily raising her two kids sans screens. She runs a website: www.screenfreeparenting.com where she writes about tech-wise parenting and provides tons of screen-free activities. She has developed psychologically-based system to help organize the activities young children learn and grow from: the S.P.O.I.L. system (http://www.screenfreeparenting.com/introduction-spoil-system/ ). Before you turn on the screen, she asks, “Have you S.P.O.I.L.-ed your child yet today?

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9 Comments

Skeeter Buck

I really appreciate the data in this article. Our son is 7 and we didn’t expose him to television until after he was 3. At the age of 3 we introduce him to the iPad to help with delayed speech.

We now closely monitor his screen time and limit him to 30 minutes iPad time a day after school.

We also have created a family movie night (Friday’s) were we rotate the movie choice between family members and we all watch it together.

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Healthy Skepticism

Interesting. From my own experience, the TV is always on in our house. By and large my 3 kids have virtually no interest in it except for maybe 1/2 an hour a day where they get captivated in show or 2. On the flipside, their cousins have screentime only on weekends and they cannot take themselves away from it when it’s on – even when they have guests.

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Adrian Kuypers

I have a 4 month old infant who intently watches TV. He has been diagnosed with Epileptic Encephalitis.
This bothers me because I thought the might be a connections between the flickering lights or TV screen and epileptic or myoclonic seizures.

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Helen

Hi Adrian, there could well be a link between tv and your child’s epilepsy. Everyone has a seizure threshold, and people who have epilepsy have low seizure thresholds, which means that it takes less to bring on a seizure. Triggers such as flashing lights from the tv, being woken up by having a light turned on, bumping one’s head, illness, stress, and many more, can bring on a seizure.
My son has temporal lobe focal seizures which are easily triggered by light, especially from tv and tablet screens. This strongly affects his mood, behaviour and use of language. Restricting his television/screen time, is extremely important in controlling his seizures.

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EMCNC

Love this article! My best advice for parents is delay access to screens for as long as possible. A child does not benefit from screens, and the hours of screen “entertainment” just keeps them from doing more age-appropriate and beneficial activities. And, kids don’t need smartphones. Not one parent I know doesn’t regret getting their child a smartphone (or as I like to call it – a high powered pocket computer that happens to have a phone and camera on it!). Your child will not miss anything not being connected to friends and social media 24/7. They will actually be better off! We just need the community of parents to use some common sense on this subject. Once the “screen” life (habit) takes over, it is hard for a child (or adult) to manage, and kids can’t self regulate. An adult (currently) has had the advantage of growing up without the constant input and distraction from screens, and has a developed pre-frontal cortex. We owe this to our kids, stop shoving a screen in their face! They will only be better off for it!

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Delia Rusu

I don’t know that the TV is really that much of an addiction these days.

I’d say that other devices like phones, iPads and computers are the screen that kids and adults (for that matter) are more attached to.

And the big issue with these, in my opinion, is that they distract and tire us more than anything else.

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Tara

I restricted screen with my daughter in her early years and also post 8 years. She is now 13 and lives for the screen – she learns an incredible amount from what she watches and always has learned from whatever she has watched. It has not caused aggression or anything else and I wonder if I had not restricted when she was younger whether she would now not use screens so much. Adults use screens all the time – they are everywhere – this is the way things are going BUT as long as learning is happening and what is learned is being put to use in the real world then not a problem.

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Danielle

Maybe she is using screens to learn because you raised her screen-less but gave her opportunities to develop strong values so she doesn’t necessarily rely on a screen? I notice that a lot of kids who are not raised on screens at an early age tend to interact with technology more intellectually and tend to use more creativity. There are also a lot of great educational shows out there. Seems you raised your daughter well if she is taking the good value out of it and leaving the bad behind.

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EMCNC

Hi Tara, one of the reasons your daughter does not display aggression (or behavioral issues) and bad screen habits is probably because you restricted her access until she was 8 years old. Consider yourself very fortunate! She was able to develop other, important social and life skills that will be so beneficial for her as she gets older. The older a child gets you do need to be aware of the amount of time a child is in front of a screen and the content of the media. Is the amount of time spent on a screen keeping her from participating in other “real” activities, relationships, school work, sleep or physical activity? Balance and connection with family are key!

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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.

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