Bottom Line - Active and creative play as well as human interaction are DEFINITELY better for young children than being in front of a screen. It is best to limit the time children are watching TV or using a device. BUT, if it isn't limited, the child's brain isnt going to turn into mush. Truth is, there are a bazillion other things that attribute to how a child turns out so attributing any of it solely to an excessive amount of screen time would be difficult but it is a possible cause for some negative outcomes (listed below).
Ok so we've estabilished that either way, screentime isnt the sole determining factor for negative outcomes your child may experience. With that said, I am an experienced and highly educated early childhood specialist and have no doubt that being in front of a screen is NOT the best use of the precious time of brain growth for young children. I also have no doubt that, in reality, we all have those times that we just need to give them the phone or tablet or put the TV on so that we can get things done. Totally understandable! Try to make it a last resort. Make sure to take all the information below into consideration when making choices about what your child is watching and try your hardest not to let your child's daily consumption of screens exceed the maximum recommended hours of screen time below (including time that they are in front of a screen at child care/school). Comment on the post with any reactions, feedback, questions, or to add to the list of resources! The struggle with screen time is definitely one the largest that we face as parents today.
After review of several sources over time (For those who want the data: Sources of information are included at the end of this post), the "magic" number seems to be 1 hour of screen time at home on days they go to childcare or school all day, 3 hours of screen time on days with no school. These numbers are the maximum number of hours of screen time for any child under 5 without having some possible negative outcomes. In our world today it is very difficult to completely avoid screens, even if we know it is best.
Note: Screen time includes TV, phone, tablet. It includes any of these being on in front of the child's face OR on in the background for the child to watch as they please.
Considerations for Amount of Screentime:
Video chatting with family and friends is the best use of screentime with infants and toddlers. Young children, under the age of 18 months, basically get nothing educational from screen time. Their brains immaturity does not allow for transferability of information from the media to the actual world around them. Research shows that kids actually don't even learn language from media until 15 months. At that time they start to learn novel words from media but still have some trouble transferring language to use in their real world. In order for any program to really have any cognitive impact on the child, the child needs to be at least 18 months old and an adult needs to actively participate in the program. Basically, they need the real life interaction to make it productive anyway so why use the screen at all? Interact with the child in some type of play instead.
Screen time at child care or school should be VERY limited before the age of 6. This also feels difficult based on the amount of information and media that is available on the internet that we, as educators, want to share with kids BUT young children need to experience the world, not watch it. Using media as one source of information is acceptable but hands on experience or reading from a physical material should always be used as the strongest source of learning at school. Stay aware of the amount of screen time your child is generally exposed to at school and make sure to calculate that into the amount of screentime you are allowing at home.
Considerations for Content of Screentime:
Does the show, video, program fit the world you want your children to understand? Young children do not have the cognitive concepts yet to know that something is completely fantasy and unrealistic. The world of superheros is super fun fantasy, but young children under the age of 5 do not know the show/movie isnt the real world. They develop understandings and identities of things that have to be undone as they grow up. For example, monsters. Young children develop a complex about monsters because they consume programs with monsters and have no idea that it isnt real. I'm not saying those shows/movies are bad but they are more appropriate for children 6 and older.
Does the show, video, program promote characters to handle emotions and treatment of others the way that you would want your child to? You want to choose a program where characters are encouraged to use healthy tactics to handle emotions and characters treat eachother in a way that you would want your child to treat others. Again, they don't know when something is reality or not. Examples include any shows with mean antagonists, really. Yes, as the child gets older you may want them to begin to see examples of appropriate handling of an antagonist. When a child is under 6 though, they are really just seeing a mean person. They arent using higher order thinking to use those situations to apply to their own lives.
Do the characters themselves, reflect how you want your child to understand themselves and others? Remember to consider this for boys and girls. Again, they don't know reality versus fantasy. A 2 or 3 year old that wants to grow up to be Elsa, wants to grow up to actually be Elsa. They don't know that isnt really a thing. They may learn later but that is after they've developed a sense of Elsa as the ideal woman. So even though she's one of the only princesses not to be defined but the man she ends up with and the movie does not feature a mean antagonist, she still fulfills many other unfortunate stereotypes of the ideal woman.
Is the game/activity educational and a better use of their time than the other options of what the child would be doing at the time? So you have to put them on a screen for a bit to get something done because they are tired and hungry, you cant make dinner if they keep requiring your attention, and they just get more tired and more hungry the longer dinner takes. So you give the a tablet. They can either play a game where they put makeup and clothes on Barbies or they can play a game with letter and numbers. We all know the right choice.
Other things to consider:
Having a screen on and sound going all the time can increase the level of stimulation that the child gets accustomed to. This would mean the child always desires a certain level of stimulation and noise in order to feel comfortable rather than being able to be relaxed in a calm and quiet atmosphere.
If you want to keep screen time to a minimum, your child needs to have access to a variety of materials and activities. Having access to these activities and materials means that they have independent access to them. For your self and for the child, don't have materials and activities accessible to the child that they cannot independently participate in because they will try to do it and either make an unwanted mess, get overly frustrated by not being able to do it, or be nagging you to do it with them when you may not be available. There should be options that the child needs support with as well but these should only be available when an adult is available to give the support.
If you have a baby and older kids, it can be difficult to reduce screen time for the younger one while the older ones are allowed more screen time. To be honest, the reality is that all kids would benefit from less screen time. So defaulting to the screen time allowance for the youngest child would benefit all kids.
Often kids are watching childrens music videos on some sort of device. Try to listen to music on audio rather than video.
Are you being a good example by limiting your screen time when with the child? When you are with your child, make sure to lead by example by consuming appropriate content and limiting use of devices and time watching TV as much as possible.
Be sure to be aware of the advertisements your child is seeing and choose channels and programs that have appropriate advertisements, if any. As soon as you can, discuss advertisements and considering different points of view when consuming online media with your kids. I'd say as early as 3 years olds, you can begin to discuss these concepts in an age appropriate way. These are incredibly important skills for children to develop with the amount of social media and online media they are/will be exposed to in their lives.
The online world can be an ugly place. ALWAYS be aware of and set limits for what your child is watching. Tell them not to message directly with anyone online without your permission.
Possible Negative Outcomes:
AACAP provides these possible negative outcomes due to excessive screen time:
Less time with family and friends
Not enough outdoor or physical activity
Reading fewer books
Lower grades in school
Less time learning other ways to relax and have fun
Poor self-image and body image issues
Fear of missing out
As many of us have observed, and maybe fall victim to, you can get sucked into whatever you are looking at on your phone or tablet. For children, when they are spending all or most of their free time with a screen in their face, they are missing out on other, incredibly valuable, time like time with family and friends, outdoor play, reading books. The lack of time they are actively playing leads to the weight problems due to less physical activity and then less physical activity also leads to the sleep problems. Sleep problems (beside the fact that sleep issues are difficult for parents to deal with) lead to lower grades in school and mood issues. Kids need to time to be "bored" in order to develop their creativity, imaginative play, and ability to find other ways to relax or have fun. With that said, the responsibility of the family to limit screen time is heavy and difficult. The sequence of nagative effects of screen time happens slowly over time. Therefore, it is not easy to see that it is happening. So you think its not having an effect on your child and then when you discover it, your child is already basically addicted to looking at a screen all the time. It's also very easy to attribute some of these problems to other things and pretend that all the time in front of the TV or looking at a device didnt cause the problem. We have to do our best though. Screen time limits can't be something that you say, "I'll address this issue later." It's much harder to address later rather than be proactive, consistent, and purposeful about your children's screen time.
The American Association of Pediatrics recommends:
Less than 1 hour day of video chatting with a live person is appropriate under 18 months
Less than 1 hour a day of only high quality apps/programs with company of an adult from 18-24 months
Up to 1 hour a day for children ages 2-5
No screens during meals and for 1 hour before bedtime.
Resources for finding quality products include Common Sense Media, PBS Kids, Sesame Workshop.
Encourage the use of a Family Media Use Plan (www.healthychildren.org/MediaUsePlan)
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology reinforces:
Until 18 months of age limit screen use to video chatting along with an adult (for example, with a parent who is out of town).
Between 18 and 24 months screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver.
For children 2-5, limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on the weekend days.
Cribsheet by Emily Oster (Buy on Amazon) - After analysis of several different studies, the author concludes:
Children under two years old cannot learn from TV.
Children ages three to give can learn from TV, including vocabulary and so on from programs like Sesame Street.
The best evidence suggests that TV watching in particular, even exposure at very young ages, does not effect test scores.