Aug 18, 2014

How Screen Time Affects Development

Dr. Adrienne Pahl is a pediatrician at Appleseed Pediatrics in Stowe and Morrisville, VT. She trained at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and completed her residency in pediatrics at the Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen. Following completion of her training she joined Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley to found Appleseed Pediatrics and serve the children of Lamoille County.

Screen Time and Early Development

A newborn baby can only see detail in faces and objects that are about ten inches or less from her face.

This may seem limiting, but it makes perfect sense—the first weeks and months of an infant’s life are spent forming attachments with her caregivers while being held in their arms—about ten inches from their faces!

Developing trusting relationships with nurturing, supportive adults is an essential part of an infant's healthy development. Those relationships provide an important buffer against damaging stress, and help the child learn compassion and trust and gain self-esteem.

Bright lights and intense colors from television, computer, tablet and telephone screens, however, can be so distracting and attractive that they interfere with the important work of bonding. Even if an infant does not appear to be focused on a screen, the presence of brightly lit screens is often enough to distract her focus from her caregivers—and more importantly, their focus from her.

Every aspect of a child's developmental progress is intertwined with a need for human connections and interaction. The "serve and return" interactions that occur between an infant and adult—in which the child makes a bid for attention with a cry or babble or gesture, and the adult responds in an appropriate way—strengthen the hundreds of brain connections forming each second, building a strong foundation for ongoing development. As the baby grows and learns to crawl and walk to explore her surroundings, she will rely entirely on constant attention and approval from her caregivers. As she learns to speak, she depends upon those adults to have continual conversations with her—whether or not they include true words.

Screens and electronics are a barrier to the interactions and connectedness that are crucial to that early development. A caregiver focused on a screen is not focused on the child. Caregivers who use screens often spend less face-to-face time with their children, who are developing the attachments, language skills and social habits that are necessary later in life.

In families where caregivers watch a lot of television, spend time on the computer throughout the day, or use telephones or tablets extensively during family time, the children are more likely to have delays in language development and to have behavioral problems as they get older. Studies have shown that exposure to television and videos results in delays in language development and cognition as well as problems with attention and executive functioning. In turn, those struggles result in poor academic performance in elementary school and beyond.

Tips for Controlling Screen Exposure

With digital screens showing up in places that no one could have imagined just a few years ago—telephones, cars, bathrooms, and even refrigerators–and the demands of today's work culture—it's harder and harder to control the use of screens in the presence of developing children. Though it's not possible to completely eliminate screens from a small child’s world, here are some helpful guidelines for lessening their interference with a child’s development:

  • As a parent, keep track of the amount of time that you spend in front of a screen. Monitoring the amount of time spent watching television, browsing the internet, or playing games on a telephone is an effective first step to controlling a child’s screen exposure.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time for children before the age of two. 
  • After the age of two, screen time should be limited to no more than two hours a day—and less is always better. 
  • As children get older, they should spend at least as much time reading as they do in front of a screen. Unlike television, video and computer use, reading has been shown to build language skills and improve critical thinking abilities.

Early childhood is both a critical period of brain development and an important time in the formation of lifelong media habits. Time spent face-to-face with children is an essential investment in their development—and, by extension, an investment in the health and well-being of our society as a whole.

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