How Does Screen Time Impact Toddler Attention and Development?

by ParentCo. March 09, 2023

young boy looking at ipad

Screens are everywhere in today’s world. Between television, tablets, and smart phones, children are exposed to screens more than ever. The net result of this is that most babies and toddlers engage with screens for one to two hours per day.

It seems, despite warnings from pediatricians that no screen time is best for children under two, most infants and toddlers are engaging with screens every day. It’s something I can relate to from one of my parenting moments. As first timer parents we had watched my four-month-old baby crane her head backwards to catch the sights and sounds of a TV screen we were watching. We had naïvely thought that she would stay absorbed in her toys on the mat because she wouldn’t be able to engage in the content.

Laugh all you want, but we learned the lesson, baby toys are no competition for the bright moving images and sound effects of a TV. It was in that moment that I understood why digital products were being marketed so successfully to parents as educational tools despite of the medical recommendations against it. Babies respond to television and parents love to see babies respond.

There is growing evidence that babies and toddlers now engage with mobile technology as well as TV. In addition to their own engagement with TV, babies and toddlers in the USA are exposed to five and a half hours background TV noise and 40 percent of parents report having television on continuously even when no one was watching. A 2017 review looked at two common concerns about screen media: what is it doing to very young children’s attention and learning? The chapter in the Cognitive Development in Digital Context looked closely at the impact of the growing trend of babies and toddlers engaging with screens. Here’s what they found:

What’s happening to attention as a result of screen time?

There is no clear evidence that screens cause attention deficits. Of concern is the relation between exposure to media and poorer executive functions (capacity for memory, impulse control and flexible thinking) and self-regulation (the ability to manage feelings and behaviors in response to a situation). Both executive functions and self-regulation help children attend and learn.

What’s happening to learning as a result of screen time?

Early learning requires a baby to focus on one thing and resist distraction from something else. The distractibility of screens means that they can impact on learning. Reduced learning of language and direct learning from parents as a result of excessive screen time has been the finding in several studies considered in the review. Children under three struggle to learn from video. They learn better from being shown by an adult than by watching an adult on a screen. Children under three also find it difficult to understand the narrative content of what’s on the screen. They engage with the colors and sounds over the content. For examples, babies were found to have scattered gaze that did not follow the story plot at all. No evidence was found for “educational-based” programs supporting language or skill development unless a co-viewing parent provided a narrative, modeling, and encouragement. Only about 50 percent of parents watch TV with their babies and toddlers, so infants and toddlers are mostly viewing screens alone and without supportive parent interaction.

How does background TV noise impact on baby and toddler development?

When a TV is on in a home several things happen. Parents tend to talk less to their babies and toddlers. This has the net effect of reducing the number of parent-child verbal and social interactions. These interactions are generally seen as critical for optimal child development. Background television distracts infants and toddlers during play. Babies and toddlers learn through play so this is less than ideal.

What lessens the negative impacts of screen time?

Having a co-viewing parent mediates the developmental risks of screen time. The type of content viewed is important as is the age and cognitive maturity of the child. This means developmentally appropriate content is best and that the older you are and the more cognitively mature you are the less potential for harm. These four factors are all more important than how much screen time occurred. In order to mediate the developmental risk parents need to make considered choices about screen time.

What are the potential positives of mobile technology over television?

Some experts advocate that the use of tablets and other devices with very young children is preferable to television as they are interactive. Although there is no evidence from studies with infants and toddlers either way, the positive outcomes of studies with preschoolers on the efficacy of electronic storybooks compared to traditional paper books suggest this could be true. Without more research, we can't determine how far the potential benefits may extend. Until then, be cautious about the choice to use mobile technology with babies and toddlers.



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