Experts agree that excessive screen time is detrimental to children’s well-being. Despite this consensus, why do parents continue to overlook these warnings?

Parents are inundated with a complex set of guidelines regarding screen time for young children: Avoid screens for babies under 18 months, restrict usage to one hour for kids under 5, choose only “high-quality” content, avoid fast-paced apps, refrain from using screens to pacify upset children, and engage in “co-viewing” to interact during viewing.

The potential consequences are significant. Regularly, new studies emerge linking screen time to various concerns for young children such as obesity, behavioral issues, sleep disturbances, and delays in speech and development.

Maya Valree, a mother in Los Angeles with a 3-year-old daughter, is acutely aware of these risks and worries constantly. However, she finds it challenging to limit her daughter’s screen time to the recommended one hour per day while managing the demands of work and parenting.

Over time, her daughter’s screen time has often exceeded 2-3 hours daily, more than double the pediatrician-recommended limit. Valree prefers educational content but finds her daughter is more captivated by favorites like Meekah and “The Powerpuff Girls.”

“Screen time ranks high among the things that make me feel guilty as a mother,” she admitted. “I’ve used it to occupy my daughter while I cook, work, or catch up on personal and professional matters.” Valree is among the many parents who, by choice or necessity, permit their infants and preschoolers to exceed expert recommendations, highlighting a significant gap between alarming predictions of harm and the everyday reality of digital life in American households.

However, feelings of guilt aside, Valree may be in the minority. Directives urging parents to curtail young children’s digital device use may not be resonating because many parents do not perceive screen time as problematic.

“Parents need distractions for their children, and screens are often the easiest and most accessible option,” observed Dr. Whitney Casares, a pediatrician in Portland and author of “Doing It All.” “Many acknowledge that screen time isn’t ideal but feel powerless to reduce it.”

Recent attention to screen time among older children, such as a cellphone ban by the Los Angeles school board and warnings from the U.S. surgeon general about social media’s impact on teens’ mental health, underscores broader concerns. Yet, many families view digital devices positively for safety and educational purposes, reflecting a generational shift in attitudes that begins with very young children.

In essence, efforts to limit young children’s screen time may falter because many parents perceive it as beneficial rather than harmful.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises families to avoid exposing babies under 18 months to screens, except for video chatting. For toddlers aged 18-24 months, they recommend very limited screen time with high-quality educational content, always watched alongside parents who should interact with their children during and after viewing.

For children aged 2-5, pediatricians recommend restricting screen time to one hour per day of educational, interactive, and pro-social programming with minimal or no advertisements. Parents should avoid fast-paced programs, apps with distracting content, or anything depicting violence. They are encouraged to co-view with their children whenever possible to help them understand what they are watching.

Additionally, pediatricians recommend children avoid screens during meals and at least one hour before bedtime. TVs should be turned off when not actively watched, and parents should refrain from using screens routinely to soothe their children, as it can hinder their emotional regulation skills.

Dr. Nusheen Ameenuddin, a spokesperson for the academy, acknowledges the challenges parents face in adhering to these guidelines given the demands of modern lifestyles. She emphasizes the importance of providing information to parents while understanding the realities they navigate.

Jacqueline Nesi, an expert from Brown University, suggests that while excessive screen time, especially beyond four hours daily, can pose risks, strict adherence to a one-hour limit lacks strong empirical support. She advocates for a balanced approach that considers both the benefits and risks of screen use.

Data from a 2020 survey by Common Sense Media indicate that few families adhere to these recommendations. Children under 2 average 49 minutes of screen time daily, while toddlers aged 2-4 watch about 2.5 hours—more than double the recommended limit. Children aged 5-8 spend slightly over three hours daily on screens. Most parents surveyed express little concern about screen time’s impact or the quality of content, often citing learning and household productivity as reasons for their children’s screen use.

Henja Flores, a mother from Fresno, uses educational videos to teach her toddler sign language and ABCs while she attends to household tasks. She allows her children to watch two to three hours daily, believing it supports their learning without causing harm.

The survey also reveals disparities in screen time habits based on income, race, and ethnicity. Lower-income families report children spending more time on screens than higher-income families, often due to practical constraints and differing access to childcare. Additionally, Black parents and those from lower-income households perceive more educational benefits from screen media compared to their white or higher-income counterparts, while Latino parents express greater concern about potential negative effects on their children’s future.

Overall, the realities of parental responsibilities and varying perspectives on screen time suggest a complex landscape where guidelines intersect with practical needs and cultural perceptions.

Why do pediatricians advocate for limiting children’s screen time?

The primary concern stems from the concept of “opportunity cost” — the valuable learning experiences that children miss out on while spending hours on digital devices.

To foster cognitive, language, motor, and social-emotional skills, young children require hands-on engagement with their environment — playing with toys, exploring outdoors, experimenting with different materials, and engaging in interactive exchanges with caregivers, explained Ameenuddin. When children spend time on digital media, they lose these crucial opportunities for growth and learning.

This is especially critical for babies and toddlers because there is limited evidence that they can effectively learn through screens.

For preschool-aged children, there is some evidence that educational programs like “Sesame Street” can enhance literacy and social development, but only in moderation. Excessive media use during early childhood has been linked to higher risks of obesity due to reduced physical activity and outdoor playtime. Additionally, children exposed to screens typically encounter more advertisements for sugary foods and drinks.

Children who spend significant time on screens also have fewer meaningful interactions with caregivers and are exposed to fewer words throughout their day, which can contribute to delays in cognitive, language, and social development. Some studies suggest a correlation between excessive screen time and behavioral issues such as ADHD, though causality has not been definitively established.

A major concern is whether screen time affects the neurological development of babies and young children. A small MRI study of preschoolers indicated that those who exceeded the recommended one hour per day of screen time showed lower development in the brain’s white matter, crucial for language and early literacy skills. However, Ameenuddin noted that current evidence does not conclusively prove that screens themselves alter brain development.

Is screen time harmful for babies?

Experts advise that babies should be actively playing and exploring their surroundings rather than watching screens.

During the first three years of life, babies form over 1 million neural connections per second, with critical development fostered through responsive interactions between children and caregivers, as emphasized by Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child. Babies engage in babbling, facial expressions, and gestures, and caregivers respond accordingly. These interactions are pivotal for the proper formation of the brain’s architecture, interactions that screens cannot replicate.

A recent study in Japan found that increased screen time at age 1 correlated with developmental delays in communication and problem-solving at ages 2-4, particularly when screen time exceeded four hours daily.

However, according to Nesi, a professor of psychiatry, occasional exposure to screens, such as catching a glimpse of a television screen, is unlikely to cause harm. She cautioned against excessive fear-based messaging, emphasizing that brief encounters with screens do not pose significant risks to babies.

Here are some suggestions on how to optimize screen time:

According to Jill Murphy, chief content officer at Common Sense Media, there is a wealth of engaging and educational content available for kids on screens. She advises sticking with branded content produced specifically for young children by reputable production companies that incorporate input from child development experts.

Murphy cautions that YouTube Kids requires vigilant parental oversight, recommending that parents preview videos beforehand or set up a profile with selected interests and a limited number of pre-screened videos.

For young children, Murphy emphasizes avoiding any content depicting violence, even if it appears playful, as children tend to mimic such behaviors quickly.

Researchers advocate for age-appropriate programming that actively engages children by encouraging them to interact, make connections to real-life situations, and features relatable characters rather than just a voice.

Murphy suggests establishing screen-free zones and designated screen times at home, along with clear limits on duration. Opting for high-quality educational content without commercials, such as that available on platforms like PBS Kids, has been linked to improved behavior and language skills.

To promote healthy screen habits, it’s important to enforce boundaries, avoid screens before bedtime, and whenever feasible, watch together with your child to foster interaction and discussion.

Leave comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *.