The Actual Effects of Screen Time on Kids’ Development
You’ve probably heard by now: Screen time is bad for babies and toddlers. But what does screen time actually do to children? What are the long-term effects of screen time on child development? Below, I’ll take you through the research into all the ways too much time spent with digital media — even ‘educational’ media — can hinder the healthy child development.
The effects of screen time on children
The effects of screen time on brain development
A landmark 2010 study found screen time for children 6 months of age is associated with less cognitive development by 14 months; babies that had 60 minutes of digital media exposure by 6 months of age, scored roughly one-third lower on tests of their cognitive and language skills 8 months later. Other studies have supported this finding, linking early screen time to increased risk of delayed cognitive development at age 2 years, across parental income and education levels.
This is in part because babies as old as 15 months aren’t cognitively able to transfer knowledge picked up from a 2-D screen to their 3-D lives; the more time they spend watching screens, even if it’s ‘educational’ content, the less time they spend gathering knowledge from experiences in the real world.
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The effects of screen time on language development
For babies age 8 to 16 months, studies have shown each hour of viewing baby-aimed videos is associated with a decrease in language development. In fact, two hours or more of screen time a day for babies under 12 months made them six times more likely to have a language delay later.
And it’s worth noting that even when babies aren’t directly viewing the digital content (as in, when a TV is playing in the background), it can still inhibit their language development. Both of these outcomes are rooted less in what is happening (the screen time) and more in what isn’t once the iPad or TV switches on: parent-child interaction, which is how babies and toddlers pick up language. (Remember — what they see and hear on a screen isn’t transferable to real life interaction.)
The effects of screen time on physical development
From the US, to Thailand, China and Australia, there has been a well-documented and exponential increase in the number of children with myopia — nearsightedness — in the past few decades. While it seems intuitive to blame hours spent staring at pixels, it doesn’t hold up to scientific evidence. However, screen time is the much more common replacement to outdoorsy activities in the sun — and a lack of sunlight seems to be the key link behind the climbing rates of childhood myopia around the world. More importantly, prolonged screen time is linked to increased risk of obesity (more on that below).
The effects of screen time on social/emotional development
For babies, toddlers and preschoolers, most of their learning is about picking up the unwritten patterns of social interaction and emotional management that allow them to function in and interact with the world. The problem is, when it comes to screen time, that because of small children’s inability yet to transfer the lessons of the screen (assuming there are any) to real-world understanding, this critical social and emotional development doesn’t happen, at least not in the amount needed; the time for the parent-child interaction and free play that teach these skills is spent in front of a screen.
This leads to all sorts of social and emotional issues that parents probably only recognize as bad behavior: Studies have associated digital media-watching for toddlers (especially if it’s toddler-aimed entertainment) with such effects as more frequent physical aggression, disobeying rules, cheating, stealing, and destruction. In other words, screen time for toddlers can cause acting out behavior — which can become a self-perpetuating cycle, as often, parents use digital devices as a surefire way to soothe a fussy baby or calm a preschooler’s tantrum.
The long-term health effects of screen time for children
Finally, increased screen time for children negatively predicts long-term well-being in general, but particularly undermines two areas critical to kids’ long-term healthy growth and development: sleep and physical activity.
Digital media doesn’t cause childhood obesity, but studies have found children’s exposure is associated with higher risk; a 2014 study found an increase in BMI for every additional hour of screen time for toddlers per week. This occurs two ways: by screen time taking up time that could have been spent in physical activity, and by digital media distracting children during meals to the point they don’t recognize the feeling of fullness. (The inhibited emotional development discussed above may also play a role in increasing risk of childhood obesity.)
And for people of all ages — from babies to adults — the negative effects of screen time on sleep have been clearly documented. For children, this is a particularly high price to pay, considering from babyhood to the teen years, children encode and retain what they’ve learned throughout the day during their hours unconscious.
Too much screen time for children isn’t life-threatening, and parenting is full of all sorts of trade-offs; for your family, more rather than less digital media might be worth it. But the effects of digital media-watching can add up over years and turn into bad habits and behaviours that self-perpetuate beyond what parents can control. That doesn’t mean this generation of children are doomed — it just means parents need to learn how to make screen time work for children, rather than against them. And you can learn that here.