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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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