In today's world, we spend hours looking at screens — whether it be on computers, TVs, tablets or smartphones. But too much screen time may not be healthy for a growing child's brain.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children ages 2 to 5 years have no more than one hour of screen time of high-quality, educational content per day. Children under 2 years shouldn't have screen time at all, except for video-calling or time co-playing with parents on apps after 6 months of age. This is because infants and toddlers learn best through live interactions and two-way communication.
Time spent in front of a screen is time that children are missing out on learning valuable skills and developing their brains. Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and the Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children's Health℠, shares insights and strategies to limit screen time.
Social cues and language
One of the major skills children learn as they grow is how to communicate with others. As adults, we take for granted our ability to speak and communicate. Children's brains are working hard to develop these complicated skills. The brain is wired to learn language from actively listening to adults (which doesn't happen when the child is focused on a screen) and engaging in in-person interactions and conversations.
"When a child is looking at a screen, they aren't looking at other people," says Dr. Holland. "They are missing out on picking up nonverbal cues and learning how to read others' faces."
In fact, a 2017 study shows that infants and toddlers who use handheld electronic screens more often are more likely to have speech delays.
Additionally, the effects of screen time on brains may not be limited to just young children. Initial findings from a 2018 study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that extended screen time affected performance on language and thinking tests in older children as well.
Handling boredom and paying attention
While it's understandable why parents use screens to help keep children entertained, boredom is an important part of childhood development – even for older children.
"Screens are naturally appealing to the brain," says Dr. Holland. "It doesn't require a lot of cognitive effort on the child's part. When that is used as a strategy to keep children occupied, the child is not using brain functions to self-regulate and deal with boredom. If those brain functions aren't strong because they haven't been exercised the way the brain needs, it can be a problem later in life."
Dr. Holland says that children need to experience boredom to help develop attention. Whether they're sitting in a classroom learning how to multiply or eating at a restaurant, children need to be able to focus on things that may not be as interesting as a smartphone game.
Strategies to limit screen time
Dr. Holland says parents can use a few strategies to help limit their child's time spent looking at screens.
"The first strategy is the toughest," says Dr. Holland. "Parents need to be a good model for behavior. If your kid sees you modeling non-screen activities like reading or sports, they will be more likely to want to do those things, too."
Dr. Holland says it is also important to realize that you can't prevent children from using screens, but you can delay it by not giving screens to very young children.
"Even if only because it's easier not to introduce screens than to take them away once a child knows what they are, keep screens out of the picture for as long as you can," says Dr. Holland. "Once screens become inevitable, you have to retain the parent role and remember that screens are a privilege for a child, not a right."
Screen time rules should be clearly explained in terms your child can understand. As with any parenting rules, when enforcing screen-time guidelines, consistency is key. Dr. Holland says parents should be confident in asserting limits on screen time and ensure that other adults (e.g., grandparents, babysitters) enforce those same rules when caring for your child. It may be particularly effective to explain screen time to children as a privilege that can be earned through certain positive behaviors (e.g., doing chores, not fighting with siblings).
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