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?

You can follow Screen-Free Parenting via her website newsletter or on

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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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Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
‘Thriving in a Stressful World: Practical Ways to Help Ourselves and Our Children Feel Secure And Calm’

As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
Webinar Details:
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Registrants will receive a Zoom link to attend the webinar live, as well as a private link to a recording of the webinar to watch if they cannot join in at the scheduled time.

Register here:
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The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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