As modern parents who rely on our cell phones and laptops to function day to day, we all feel that sense of dread when we see our young children staring at a screen; and the younger the child, the more sinking the feeling. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages media use for children under the age of two years, but the reality of keeping your kids off your iPhone until their second birthday is so difficult. Many a one-year-old can swipe and enter that four-digit password and select their favorite app. So, what is the state of research on screen time and touch-screen technology for very young children and what can we do to make the most out of our child’s screen time?
What do we know? (not a lot…yet)
High quality longitudinal research is necessary to answer questions about the impact of screen time in children under the age of three years on later development of important executive functioning, academic and socio-emotional skills. Although companies have been marketing electronic “educational” games and toys to infants and young children for more than a decade, easily accessible touch screen devices like iPhones and tablets have only recently been introduced. And even though studies are underway, research in this area is simply unable to keep up with the pace of technological advancement.
How does screen time impact development?
There are two ways screen time can impact development and knowing these mechanisms gives parents the power to protect their kids against the potentially harmful effects of media use.
- Screen time can directly impact development through the content of the media and its features. For example, we know that rapid-paced TV content (e.g., our favorite little yellow sponge) can impair a child’s ability to control their attention and delay gratification (i.e., executive functioning skills). It is probably safe to bet that fast-paced apps and games might have the same negative impact on attention (e.g., building a burger tower or manipulating rapidly dropping shapes).
- Screen time can also indirectly impact development through displacement.
Basically, children are only awake for a limited number of hours a day and time spent in front of a screen takes time away from other activities that are known to benefit social, cognitive and academic outcomes like playing with friends, building blocks, pretending, rough-housing and reading.
What can parents do?
In addition to limiting screen time and seeing that the content of apps and games are age-appropriate, participating in screen time with your child is a good strategy for media use with very young children. Make conversation about the content of the program or app (“Oh, that bear got so angry when he found out his hat was missing!”). Ask questions about what you are watching together. Connect what you are viewing on the screen with real-life experiences. Focus on the storyline of the app or game (e.g., the characters, their emotions, the conflicts and resolutions) rather than the technological features (e.g., sounds of voices, movement of characters).
Even though we may not yet have the research evidence on the impact of touch-screen technology on the development of very young children, there are many simple things parents can do to make the experience more of a parent-child interaction.
For more information, check out THESE resources for hands on strategies for using media with babies and toddlers.