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Is There an Association Between Screen Time and Child Development?

April 14, 2021

Screen time as it relates to child development remains the focus of ongoing studies. Experts agree that screen time for children under two is detrimental to cognitive development. Beyond that, the issue becomes more complicated.

Most of the conversation around screen time and child development past the age of two revolves around the quality rather than the quantity of the content consumed. Regulating that issue, as well as setting firm rules around time spent in front of a screen, falls to parents.

Educators who specialize in early childhood education can offer guidance by working with parents to ensure that children have positive experiences with screen time.  As Merrimack College’s M.Ed Program Director, Stacey Klasnick noted, “Engagement between teachers and parents on suggested screen content should be seen as a positive step in identifying learning enhancement opportunities versus a strict focus on what the children shouldn’t engage in on their mobile devices.”

 How Much Is Too Much?

Research has found that large amounts of recreational screen time negatively impact developing brains. According to the Mayo Clinic, excessive “poor quality” screen time has been linked to issues such as obesity, behavioral problems, loss of social skills, and even violence.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends little to no screen time for children younger than 24 months. Research supports that stance. For example, a study authored by a University of Calgary psychologist found higher amounts of screen time for infants and toddlers led to lower chances of them reaching developmental goals at 24 and 36 months.

For those in search of general screen time guidelines, the American Society of Pediatrics offers the following.

  • No digital media for children younger than 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting
  • One hour per day of high-quality screen time for children two to five, with parents watching with them, helping them understand what they are seeing and applying what they see to the real world
  • Avoiding fast-paced programs that children will find difficult to understand
  • Turning off all devices when not in use
  • Avoiding the use of media to calm your child, outside of specific situations (plane ride, medical procedures)
  • Keeping bedrooms, mealtimes, and parent-child playtimes screen-free

Quality More Important Than Quantity

As children age, screen time and child development become more complex. The Mayo Clinic reports there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, they note that past a certain age, the “quality of the media your child is exposed to is more important than the type of technology or amount of time spent”.

The Mayo Clinic observes that “unstructured playtime is more valuable for a young child’s developing brain than is electronic media”.  As children age, they can benefit from supervised screen time involving music, movement, and stories. But “passive screen time” should not replace activities such as playing, reading, or problem-solving.

Poor quality screen time includes anything that is entertainment just for the sake of entertainment. But it also can include many things labeled “educational”.

For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics explains that many apps available for download in the education category show no efficacy in teaching preschoolers valuable skills. Instead, they “target only rote academic skills, are not based on established curricula, and use little or no input from developmental specialists or educators.”

Early childhood educators can introduce children and parents to media designed to improve cognitive and literacy skills. Improving social outcomes is an important component of these types of media. Helping parents find content that has been designed or approved by educators is key in assisting them to make better decisions in the home.