Our screens are ever present, and as we click, sweep and scroll through our lives, our kids are becoming tech-savvy earlier and earlier. With so many games and apps available, it’s easy to put screens into little hands. Yet, experts say there are good reasons to hold off. Diana Shepherd, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Child Development at California State University, Chico. She says that for children under the age of 5, there are few (if any) benefits from using screens – and potentially many harmful consequences. “Infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they can and do from interactions with caregivers,” explains Shepherd.
How they learn.
Young children are wired to learn about the world using their senses. Thomas Kaut is the administrator of a Montessori school which serves children ages 2 through 12. “Children are active learners,” Kaut says. “Viewing a screen does not provide the same learning opportunity as active exploration with their hands. You can always do better with blocks, sand and water.”
When a child builds a tower with wooden blocks, she gains skills in all areas of development. She learns about shape, size, texture, weight and spatial concepts as she picks up and places each piece. She counts and sorts her blocks. She repeatedly squats and stands, describes her structure and negotiates with peers. In contrast, the click-and-drag virtual tower offers few of these learning opportunities.
Kaut worries that the more time young children spend with screens, the less time they’re engaged in real-life activities that support cognitive, physical and social-emotional development. They aren’t moving their bodies, playing outside and interacting with adults and other children. Problems such as language delay, obesity and sleep disturbance have been linked to increased screen time and early exposure to screens.
They’re watching us. Are we watching them?
Young children need loving caregivers with whom to sing, read, play and cuddle. “The parent is the child’s first and most important teacher,” says Tami Winternitz, director of a preparation program for early childhood education (ECE) teachers. This means children also depend on parents to be good models. “How adults monitor their own screen time in the presence of children often translates into how present they are with the children,” Winternitz says.
Interruptions caused by our devices can negatively impact parent-child interactions. Dr. Shepherd says that when the television is on, even in the background, parents spend less time talking to and playing with their infants. “Positive engagement is reduced when parents are distracted by their devices, diverting their attention to a text or media message alert, snapping photos or watching television,” Shepherd says. What’s more, research indicates that when parents allow these technology-based interruptions, children often respond with negative attention-seeking behavior such as whining, crying, clinging or “acting out.”
Be mindful of content.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under 18 months avoid screen exposure except for video chatting. For children up to five years, screen time should be limited to one hour per day of high-quality programming viewed with an adult. “Letting children use media by themselves should be avoided,” says Shepherd, explaining that adults need to help children interpret what they are seeing and apply it to the real world.
In addition, parents must choose content carefully. On-screen violence can lead to increased aggression, particularly among boys. And young children whose media diet includes lots of fast-paced programming with multiple screen shifts (think “Sponge Bob Squarepants”) are at greater risk for attentional difficulties. “Parents must ask themselves,” says Shepherd, “What do I want my children to experience and learn from media, and how will this shape their thoughts, perceptions, emotions and behaviors?”
Digital books should be previewed, too. Research has shown that distracting elements such as sounds, lights and animation may decrease a child’s ability to follow the plot. But comprehension increases when an e-book is viewed with an adult and includes features such as word highlighting and repeatable text.
It’s helpful to note that there’s no harm in not exposing a young child to screens. Parents are often misled when toys and apps are marketed as “educational.” They want to provide every advantage, and many parents worry their children will be left behind without access to the latest technology. However, most research indicates young children do not benefit from using these products, and experts agree that kids learn best when they read books and do other hands-on activities with their caregivers.
Though it’s tempting to hand a tablet or phone to a fussy, bored child, this should be avoided. “Using a screen as a babysitter or distracter may make the situation easier on the adult for that moment,” says Winternitz. “However, a screen will not likely provide what the child actually needs – food, rest, comfort, calm, support or social interaction.”
Shepherd also cautions parents against using a screen as the go-to for calming a child; this can lead to problems with a child’s ability to self-regulate. As a busy mom to six children, she knows it’s not always easy. “But the patterns we establish early guide their behaviors as they grow up,” Shepherd says. “When they are young, that’s the time to invest in their future by making these choices and by making time to engage with them.”
- Walk through your neighborhood without your phone. Comment on the weather, pets, vehicles, neighbors.
- Use texture – soft, rough, bumpy, slick – in your play time.
- Install a sandbox.
- Build a fort with cardboard boxes and blankets.
- Play the old board games – Hi Ho Cherry-O, Candyland.
- Create portable activity boxes (stickers, pipe cleaners, putty, paper and markers, small board books, dolls) for waiting rooms, restaurants and car rides.
- Pull a chair up to the sink and let your toddler play with bubbles while you make dinner.
- Watch old episodes of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a great example of the slow-paced, pro-social content that’s appropriate for young children.
- Set no-screen times and places (dinner table, bedtime routine).
- Talk to your child about what he’s feeling, and comfort him.
- Sing, dance and read with her.
- 131 Boredom Busters and Creativity Builders for Kids, by Jed Jurchenko (2017)
- 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids, by Asia Citro (2014)
- The Complete Resource Book for Infants: Over 700 Experiences for Children from Birth to 18 Months, by Pam Schiller (2005)
- Common Sense Media — Age-based reviews of movies, games, apps, TV shows, websites and more. Content is rated for positive messages, violence, harsh language. Lots of parent resources.
- Screen-Free Parenting — Age-based activity ideas, links to research, information on child development.
Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE)
— Downloadable activity sheets and parent guides.