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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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