Screen Time: Risks for Infants and Toddlers

Technology has become so integrated into our everyday lives that we forget iPads were introduced in 2010 – not quite teenagers by human standards. During the last 12 years, the convenience of tablets and other mobile devices quickly led to wide-ranging acceptance. That acceptance has extended to all age groups as well. Users have gone from tech-savvy adults to school children and younger. While the devices themselves offer the world at your fingertips, are they the best tool for toddlers’ fingers to learn and grow?

Studies show screen time has an impact on quality of life, particularly for infants and toddlers learning language skills and social behaviors. For children aged 0 to 2, screen time has doubled in recent years. Considering that 0-3 are the years that most influence their lifelong ability to read, learn and build relationships, prioritizing how infants and toddlers spend their time is key to good parenting.

It may come as a surprise that the American Association of Pediatricians recommends no screen time (except for video chatting with family) until 18-24 months. Television counts in the screen time equation, however, cell phones and tablets are presenting more risk in part due to their portability. Children 2-5 years old should have an hour or less per day of screen time with the remaining time spent in creative, learning and quiet time activities.

What Infants and Toddlers Need

Infants rely on one-on-one human interaction to learn facial expressions and social cues. They smile when you smile, they try talking to get your attention – the whole time cataloging and learning language and social skills. Imagine an infant who is using their brain’s building blocks being confused by no reaction from the screen in front of them when they smile or babble.

As they start to crawl and walk, they become the explorer of their knee-high world. This is a critical time for them to learn skills about dealing with their own emotions. The frustration of learning to crawl. The happiness in standing on their own. Self-regulation starts in infancy but becomes more important as language and mobility grow.

What Does Self-Regulation Mean?

Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your own behavior and reactions to feelings and things happening around you. It is a set of skills that enables children (and adults) to direct their own behavior toward a goal, despite the unpredictability of the world and our own feelings. For infants and toddlers, the ability is learned from the safe and positive interactions they have with parents and caregivers. A key component is assuring quiet time, allowing emotions to cool and productive feelings to surface.

What Does This Have to Do with Screen Time?

Consuming media through TV, iPads or mobile devices does not allow a break for the child to depend on themself for creativity or entertainment. The constant noise and motion take the place of experiencing their current environment, learning social skills by playing with others or thinking about their current feelings. They may begin reaching for your phone or iPad to distract themselves from dealing with feelings of insecurity or anger.

Examples of this may occur while waiting in the grocery line or dinner out as a family. As a busy parent, it may seem better to hand the phone over while waiting in line to avoid possible tantrums. Experts point out that dependence on outside stimuli means toddlers lose out on the opportunity to observe the environment around them and be present in the moment. Being present means learning observations skills and the ability to react appropriately to what is happening around them. This can later help with their safety – helping them develop the habit of being present and spotting out-of-place people or circumstances rather than having eyes glued to a screen.

According to psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee “The brain works on a use it or lose it principle,” she says. “Unless we are intentionally creating opportunities for focus, for delay of gratification, and for boredom, the portions of the brain that regulate these functions have the potential to show less robust, and possibly even diminished, function.”

Screen Time Impact on Brain Development

A recent study observing the potential impact of screen time on brain development supported Dodgen-Magee’s comments.  Periodic brain scans of a designated group of infants and toddlers showed changes in brain matter dependent on screen time. Those who spent more time outdoors or relying on their own creativity showed normal growth and development. For others who had increased screen time, the areas for learning, language and emotional control were underdeveloped.

A different study was cited in an American Academy of Pediatrics article.  Observing the same children at 9 months and again at 2 years, increased media use was associated with children who had higher instances of behavioral issues and lower language, social and self-regulation skills.

Why This Happens with Screen Time

From birth, the human brain responds to outside stimuli with combinations of chemicals within the body. We are all familiar with the adrenalin rush when watching a scary movie or the feel-good rush of a happy ending. It turns out that many activities on phones, tablets and computers can cause similar reactions. Of particular concern for infants and toddlers is the release of dopamine in relation to feelings of gratification and reward during screen time.

Dopamine works in different parts of the brain that regulate movement, eating, sleeping, learning and attention span. When a child feels the excitement from winning a prize during screen time, dopamine is released as a part of the brains’ reward system. In the case of electronics, a reward can be won multiple times a session versus real life that usually takes more effort and time. This gives the child a sense of doing something great and the desire to repeat the action over and over. Unfortunately, that feeling of greatness and reward is not tied to their own creativity or grounded in real-life.

The more often a game is played, the more the body and brain come to expect the chemical reward of dopamine. In children, this creates a concerning feedback loop, often leading to less interest in outside activities and investing in social friendships. The higher frequency of dopamine possible with electronic screen time creates an increasing demand from the body that is difficult or impossible to fulfill with non-screen activities.

Screen Time Ages Guide

In this plugged-in age, it is inevitable that children begin to pick up a parent’s cell phone or tablet out of curiosity. They want to know why you pay so much attention to the thin black piece of plastic with lights. As curiosity moves to learning to use electronic devices, how the access and duration of sessions is managed can make a tremendous impact on the rest of your child’s life.

The following graphic from the American Academy of Pediatrics is a helpful guide of appropriate screen time usage by age.

Screen time Tips

  • Electronic dependency can begin at any age. If your toddler, pre-teen or teenager shows signs of stress or panic when denied access to your tablet, it’s time to step back and make a new plan for access.
  • Be aware that infants and toddlers are best served by non-electronic toys that aid in learning skills for counting, colors and shapes.
  • If your school system issues an electronic device as part of their learning tools, be sure that is used for learning – not playing. Following the session duration guide from the American Academy of Pediatricians helps with knowing what the time limits should be for anything outside of schoolwork.
  • Does your 4 year old try sneaking the tablet to their bedroom at night? Remind them that non-school related screen time is shared with you or another adult until they are 5 years old (or whatever age you set).
  • Resist making additional screen time a reward. The suggested limits are there for a reason. A better reward would be something encouraging their own creativity, outdoor fun or special family time.

It’s Never Too Late to Start

As busy parents and caregivers it’s been easy – and by some manufacturers even encouraged – to let the tablet and phone be a source of entertainment during meal prep or drive time. There is nothing inherently wrong with electronics. The downside comes from early exposure for infants and toddlers and the duration of sessions when they happen. So make a plan that includes time limits and the need for you to be present when the session occurs. Include the kind of activities that are approved and a couple of examples that are off-limits like games and role-playing.

It can feel like an uphill battle when your 3-year-old starts crying when not handed your phone upon request. It may be worthwhile to have a talk about the new parameters beforehand so they can feel included in the plan. Use either/or questions versus yes/no. Would they prefer quiet time or coloring while you prepare dinner?

Remember that any modifications you do are an investment in your child’s life-long ability to learn and develop healthy habits. Being eager to be outside or go to events that build friendships is infinitely healthier than sitting in their room for hours playing games.

If your child exhibits a strong reaction of anxiety or anger about having less screen time or is unable to adapt longer term, please seek help from professionals.

Articles that may be of further interest include:

From Mayo Clinic: Are video games, screens another addiction?
From New York – Presbyterian Hospital: What Does Too Much Screen Time Do to Children’s Brains?
From Harvard: Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time

Screen time is one of many factors to consider regarding the best practices of raising a child. We understand it can be a daily struggle to balance time, nutrition and child care. At Kids Incorporated our teachers and volunteers do not have mobile phones in the classroom. They do have computers to use (only adult access) in looking up more information or pictures directly related to the daily lesson. We prioritize the value of reading and face-to-face interactions to better develop infants’ and toddlers’ language and social skills.  Our Early Learning Programs may be just what your child needs to succeed!  Learn more by going to the programs and services pages here on our website or call 850.414.9800.