Updated: May 12, 2021
Image: Hutton et al., 2019
Educational tv shows and apps make the promise that they help your child’s development. How much do they help? Or don’t they?
Recent research has started to show the effect of screen time on children’s development. The results do not look promising.
The most recent report (Hutton et al., 2019) came this month in a study published in JAMA Pediatrica. Preschoolers who spent more than the recommended amount of screen time showed less brain development and scored lower on tests of language development.
A 2017 study in Acta Paediatrica looked at brains of children aged 8 – 12 years. Children with high screen time had less white matter (connections) in the brain area used for reading skills.
There have been more studies on the development of these brain connections, called myelination. You can look at the references in the Hutton article for a sampling of other research.
DID THE CHILDREN ACT DIFFERENTLY?
Yes. Children in the studies performed differently on tests of language and literacy.
Preschoolers with more screen time had lower spoken vocabulary, lower reading-readiness skills, slower processing speed and weaker memory.
The 8–12 year old children with more screen time spent less time reading and had lower reading skills.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CHILDREN’S BRAINS?
More studies need to be done before causes can be nailed down. Researchers suspect that screen time cuts down on the time children could be learning through social interaction.
If you watched the Serve and Return video, you saw that interaction with adults literally builds a child’s brain. New connections are established and strengthened as your child engages in back-and-forth social exchanges.
Watching tv is not interactive. It's not enough for Dora the Explorer or Blue's Clues to ask a question now and then. (Are those shows dating me? Tumble Leaf and Peppa Pig don't ask the viewer questions, do they?)
Apps might seem interactive, but they are not responsive. There's not the social give-and-take you get from another person. We may have to wait until the 24th century for that. (Any Star Trek holodeck fans out there?)
Here's what I think: Apps and videos do not provide the social interaction that is required for building your child’s brain. Every minute spent paying attention to a screen is a minute that brain connections are not growing.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SCREEN TIME
So, how much screen time is too much?
Medical experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have published these guidelines:
Birth – 2 years
No screen time, except video-chatting. (There must have been a grandparent on the committee.)
2 – 5 years
One hour per day. An adult should watch or play along so you can provide mediation. You can point out details, talk about meanings, explain information or apply it to something familiar, and follow up with real-life experiences.
6 years and older
Set consistent limits:
Set designated times and amount per day
Don’t let it interfere with sleep and physical activity
Have media-free times (like dinner, driving)
Have media-free locations (especially bedroom)
Educate your child about safe and respectful use online
IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?
Screens are everywhere. You carry one in your pocket or purse. They're probably even in your doctor’s waiting room.
I know some families that follow the guidelines, so it’s possible for some people.
I’ve also seen reactions like the writer from Glamour magazine who asked, “Will researchers entertain my kids while I make dinner?”
You have to decide what your family can manage.
If you want to make a change, what works best is to actually make a plan. Write it down to make it official. Think about how you can manage the parts of the day when your child needs to be doing something while you need to be doing something else.
The AAP has a website that helps you calculate your family’s media time and create a media plan.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
I’m interested in how families are responding to these guidelines. What does your family do? Do you have any suggestions for alternatives to screen time?