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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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