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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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