Our world is no doubt becoming more and more digital with each year that goes by and as a result our children’s idea of fun and games is very different to what it was 10-20 years ago. The amount of outdoor play and exercise that kids in my generation enjoyed is very different to what the modern-day toddler and child are getting.
Instead children, toddlers and even babies are spending more time looking at screens whether that be a TV, tablet or phone. There is no doubt that navigating the world of technology is getting increasingly difficult for parents and many use it as a way to entertain their children when they need to get things done.
What I see becoming more of a concern is the amount of time babies and toddlers are using screens for. How many toddlers have you seen be able to navigate their way around an iPhone? I know far too many!
In this article I want to focus on the current recommendations of screen time for babies and toddlers and provide you with some strategies to safely navigate the world of screens for your little ones.
What The Research Says
There are many published studies looking at the effects of screen time on babies and toddlers and many more currently in the pipeline. It is a hot topic in the Neuro-Development world – especially looking at how it effects brain development and emotional wellbeing.
One study done in 2019 showed that increased screen time for kids aged between 2 and 3 was associated with delays in meting developmental milestones at age 3 and 5.
Another study looked at the association between screen time and children’s performance on a developmental test showed that screen time is most likely the initial factor in some developmental delays (rather than them being interlinked). This study showed that greater screen time at 24 months was associated with poorer performance on developmental screening tests at 36 months, and similarly, greater screen time at 36 months was associated with lower scores on developmental screening tests at 60 months.
An overall theme of studies looking at the relationship between screen time and development is that screen time within the critical period of growth and maturation (i.e. the first few years of life) can impinge on children’s ability to optimally develop. This is because children’s development relies on one particular factor above all else – movement! Movement drives brain development and helps create all the connections our neurons (brain cells) make. When young children are watching screens they are missing important opportunities to play. Play encourages development of motor skills, communication skills and interpersonal interaction and is crucial for a child’s neuro-development.
Not only do screens interfere with a child’s neuro-development, excessive screen time has been linked to other childhood problems such as obesity, social issues and lack of emotional control. One study showed that less recreational screen time is better for avoiding obesity and promoting better sleep, physical fitness as well as cognitive, social and emotional development.
Babies and Toddlers brains and bodies are not built to sit in front of screens for hours upon hours. They need to be stimulated through the use of their 5 senses as well as through movement. When they don’t get this stimulation, their brain is not able to develop the way that it instinctively should.
Current Guidelines For Technology Uses in Children
Current national and international guidelines recommend the following:
- Avoid screen time for children under 2 years, unless its video chatting.
- Only 1-2 hours of high-quality programming for children 2 to 5 years2. The American Academy of Paediatrics only recommends 1 hour.
- For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviours essential to health.
How Much Screen Time is Okay for Babies and Toddlers?
According to recent guidelines screen time for babies and toddlers under 2 years old is not recommended. This is because most of your child’s brain development occurs within the first 2 years of life. Thus, it is so important that during these years your child explores their environment and moves a lot!
Movement drives development and if occupied by screen time your child misses out on potential movement opportunities. It is thoroughly important that during the first 2 years of life your child experiences different sights, sounds, textures, tastes, environment and people to help them learn about the world around them – something that screens just don’t provide.
Any screen time in this important developmental stage will take away chances for them to be on the move and exploring which ultimately takes away development opportunities.
What About Using Screens as a Way to Settle Your Toddler
It is very tempting to hand over your phone or tablet as a method of soothing your upset or cranky toddler. However relying on devices to manage tantrums may actually end up doing more harm than good.
One study found that babies and toddlers who have more screen time have greater difficulty in soothing themselves.
It is very important for toddlers and young children to learn to adjust to daily life challenges such as not getting everything they want at the supermarket or being told no they can’t play with that. It is important for them to learn to deal with frustrations and handle their emotions by themselves. If you continuously hand them a phone or tablet at any sign of an oncoming tantrum then you are telling them that that is their coping mechanism and are hindering their emotional self-regulation development.
It is also important to not use screen time to help wind down your baby or toddler in the evening. We know from countless research that the blue light omitted from screens travels directly into the brain and suppresses a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is essentially your sleep hormone and should rise of a night time.
If you are letting your children watch or play on screens close to their bed time then melatonin release will be reduced and your child will not feel sleepy. So many children may be struggling with getting to sleep because their brains are simply telling their body that it is not time for sleep yet. It also explains why the rates of melatonin supplementation in kids is on the rise.
What About Educational Media on Screens? Surely That’s Ok?
While educational media is better than purely entertainment media it is still recommended that no screen time for children under 2 is better. This is due to reasons we have mentioned above about how it effects their development.
Babies and toddlers learn mainly through observing and imitating the people around them. They watch and listen and start to form the connections needed in their brain to be able to perform the task. If a lot of their time is spent watching something on a screen they are not getting that 3D image plus all the sensory feedback they would be getting from someone right in front of them. This then limits their ability to imitate and therefore develop.
Will My Toddler Miss Out if They Don’t Have any Screen Time?
There is no need from a developmental perspective to introduce screens from an early age. Babies and toddlers learn so much more from moving, playing and interacting with other humans. All screens do at this age is provide a distraction from this.
As a parent you may feel pressured to allow your child to use some sort of screen because that is what everyone else’s child is doing. But rest assured your child won’t be disadvantaged if you hold out for a couple of years. Plus, kids learn so quick that it takes them no time at all to learn to navigate a keypad or touchscreen.
So hold off on introducing your child to a screen at least til after their second birthday. Instead spend the first 2 years allowing them to explore their world and interact with them on a personal level as much as you can. This will benefit their development, their ability to socialise and connect with other humans as well as their development. Then when you do allow screens it will be a much more enjoyable experience for both of you and you will be able to utilise technology rather than be at the mercy of it.
Yours In Health
Dr Alana x