‘But my baby won’t eat without watching the screen.’
‘What do I do when the baby cries on a flight?’
In fact, in recent years 40% of 3-month-olds and 90% of 2-year-olds are regularly watching programs on screens.
Why is screen time for babies harmful?
Let’s look at what the experts say.
There is a strong body of evidence that suggests that screen viewing before the age of 18 months has lasting negative effects on children's language development, reading skills, and short-term memory. It also contributes to problems with sleep and attention.
It takes around 18 months for a baby's brain to develop to the point where the symbols on a screen come to represent their equivalents in the real world.
What babies need most to learn is interaction with the people around them. That doesn't mean that they shouldn't video-chat with a distant grandparent or a parent away from home, but when it comes to day-to-day learning they need to touch things, shake them, throw them, and most of all to see the faces and hear the voices of those they love the most. Apps can teach toddlers to tap and swipe at a screen, but studies tell us that these skills don't translate into real-world learning. There is no benefit.
In fact, watching content on screens is like feeding junk food to the baby’s mind.
A toddler learns a lot more from banging pans on the floor while you cook dinner than he does from watching a screen for the same amount of time because every now and then the two of you look at each other.
Just having the TV on in the background, even if "no one is watching it," is enough to delay language development. Normally a parent speaks about 940 words per hour when a toddler is around. With the television on, that number falls by 770! Fewer words mean less learning.
One very important learning goal for babies is to develop attention span. It has been proved that when babies watch screen daily, they will have serious problems paying attention at age 7.
After age 2 or 3 things change, at least somewhat. During the preschool years, some children do learn some skills from educational TV. Well-designed shows can teach kids literacy, maths, science, problem-solving, and prosocial behaviour. Children get more out of interactive programs like Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street when they answer the characters' questions. Educational TV makes the biggest difference for children whose homes are the least intellectually stimulating.
In a study, it was found that children who reported more than two hours a day of screen time got lower scores on thinking and language tests.
That same study found that children with lots of screen time had a premature thinning of the outermost layer of their brains (the cerebral cortex). This layer is the most evolved brain region and supports the highest-order cognitive functions.
Additional research has shown links between screen time and toddler obesity, sleep disruption during early childhood, and diminished fine motor development.
Most child development experts recommend avoiding screen media for children younger than 18 months. Children under 18 months cannot translate what they perceive on a two-dimensional screen into the physical world.
Researchers have established that children who are watching screens develop lower communication and cognitive abilities. The time spent on screens minuses from their experiences that genuinely support learning.
It is also addictive so diminishes capabilities of self-control and delaying gratification that is such an important success factor for life.
What do the experts say about screen time?
1 Babies need humans, not screens.
Naturally, children learn more when they watch TV or use apps with a parent. Content matters a lot. All programs educate kids about something, but stick with ones that are designed to teach children stuff they should actually know like language and maths.
Regardless of content, cap your child's electronic entertainment time at 1 hour a day from age 18 months to age five.
Patricia Kuhl is one of the world’s leading brain scientists who studies more than 4,000 babies each year.
“What we’ve discovered is that little babies, under a year old, do not learn from a machine,” she says, pointing to several brain scans on a computer. “Even if you show them captivating videos, the difference in learning is extraordinary. You get genius learning from a live human being, and you get zero learning from a machine.”
Perhaps that is why the World Health Organization recommends no screen time for babies under 2 and no more than one hour of screen time a day for those aged 2 to 4.
2. Screens damage attention spans
For children to be successful, they need to learn how to concentrate and focus. That ability starts to develop during their earliest years when their brains are more sensitive to the environments around them. For a brain to develop and grow, it needs essential stimuli from the outside world. More importantly, they need time to process those stimuli. While reading storybooks out loud gives children time to process words, images and voices, the constant absorption of on-screen images and messages affects their attention span and focus.
3. Screens reduce the ability to control impulses
Young children need their dose of boredom. It teaches them how to cope with frustration and control their impulses. If young children are constantly being stimulated by screens, they forget how to rely on themselves or others for entertainment. This leads to frustration and hinders imagination and motivation.
4. Screens reduce empathy
In the first two years of life, a very critical first step towards emotional intelligence is developing - the ability to recognize emotions from facial expressions. Research has shown that screen time inhibits young children’s ability to read faces and learn social skills, two key factors needed to develop empathy. Face-to-face interactions are the only way young children learn to understand non-verbal cues and interpret them.
“Until babies develop language,” says Charles Nelson, a Harvard neuroscientist who studies the impact of neglect on children’s brains, “all communication is non-verbal, so they depend heavily on looking at a face and deriving meaning from that face. Is this person happy with me, or are they upset at me?” That two-way interaction between children and adult caregivers is critically important for brain development.
Exposure to screens reduces babies’ ability to read human emotions and control their frustration. It also detracts from activities that help boost their brain power, like play and interacting with other children. But if you have to rely on screens at certain moments, just make sure to control the quality of what they see and engage with them while they’re watching. The benefits of limiting and even eliminating screen time in these early moments will last a lifetime.
5. Chances of Obesity
Being in front of a screen means your child isn't moving. It may also mean that they're exposed to food advertising and increased snacking while watching TV. Studies have confirmed that too much screen time contributes to childhood obesity and future weight gain, and reducing screen time helps reverse the trend.
One five-year study of over 3,500 children in eight countries found that children were 16 percent more likely to become overweight or obese for every extra hour of screen viewing. The same study found that every hour less of sleep was associated with a 23 percent increased risk of overweight or obesity.
The Final Recommendations regarding screen time for Babies
Younger than 18 months: Screen time is discouraged, other than video-chatting alongside an adult.
18 to 24 months: Limited, high-quality programming/apps co-viewed with an adult is best. Solo viewing is discouraged.
2 to 5 years: Screen use should be limited to no more than 1 hour a day. Viewing should be interactive, non-violent, educational, and prosocial. Co-viewing is recommended.
5 years and older: Place consistent limits on daily screen time and types of media. Select and co-view media with your child. Teach your child about online safety and respect for others online.
The WHO recommends against any screen time for babies till the age of 2 years. Instead, they encourage sedentary time "engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver" for up to an hour at a time.