What Science Says About Babies and Screen Time

Last updated: 11-16-2020

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What Science Says About Babies and Screen Time

Oh how we love our children and want to make the right decisions for their health and happiness! Well, now we can all breathe because Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, one of the top national child experts, has written the quintessential parenting guide on everything and anything you need to know about baby- and toddler-care decisions. It is called, THE BOTTOM LINE FOR BABY and the book covers more than sixty common concerns and dilemmas – including sleep training to swaddling, thumb sucking to tummy time, reading and sign language to pacifiers — and every strategy is backed by the latest science. Dr. Bryson demystifies all those issues we worry about most with her trademark warmth and wisdom.

One of the top parenting questions right now is screen time. How much is too much? And what does the latest science tell us about the potential impact of screens on our young children’s development? Here is a selection from Dr. Bryson’s chapter “Screen Time” from  THE BOTTOM LINE FOR BABY that offers answers. And the excerpt (provided with the permission of her publisher) also gives you an idea of the book’s unique format: fabulous, bite-size explanations to issues you need for the first year of your baby’s precious life as well as practical solutions..  (You can read more about it here if you want more information as well as a video with Dr. Bryson talking about her book.

by Dr. Tina Payne Bryson from THE BOTTOM LINE FOR BABY

With the ubiquity of screen devices, how much is too much for infants? Can TV, videos, phones and other screens by beneficial for a child’s development? Can infants actually learn from them? Or should you focus exclusively on human interactions and active play for at least the first few years of your child’s life?

Perspective #1: The recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatricians—that children under two completely avoid media with the exception of occasional video chats with family members—exists for a reason. Screen time for infants and toddlers correlates with cognitive, developmental, and speech delays, as well as negative health issues and even lowered academic success. You can’t escape screens entirely; they’re everywhere. But as much as possible, keep them from becoming a routine part of your kids’ world. Instead, play and talk with them to develop skills related to language, physical development, cognition, and relationships.

Perspective #2: The AAP provides excellent advice on a number of subjects and should be relied upon as an authoritative voice on children and their health. On this issue, though, they’re simply not being realistic. There’s a plethora of age-and content-appropriate media these days, and it might even give a child the benefit of being more technologically savvy in our high-tech world. And even if the video is less educational and merely entertaining, how is that a bad thing? Let’s be honest: virtually all parents need a break from time to time, and screens can provide it. Obviously, we have to be careful not to overdo this. But like it or not, we’re all digital citizens now, and avoiding screens until a child is two is simply not feasible for modern parents.

What the Science Says

Despite the AAP’s recommendation (with which the World Health Organization agrees, by the way), 68 percent of kids younger than two use screen media in a typical day, with an average of over two hours per day. And this is direct exposure to the digital world. Beyond that, younger children also often encounter hours more of “background” or secondhand screen exposure, such as a television or other screen being on while someone else is watching or simply as background noise.

But is this really a problem? Research says yes. First of all, there’s practically no evidence that children under the age of one learn language or conceptual skills via a screen. Actual intellectual and linguistic abilities develop as a result of interactions with a live caregiver. The reason is simple. Developmentally, infants don’t have the memory and attentional skills, or the symbolic understanding, necessary to learn from two- dimensional images the way they do when interacting with actual humans and the physical world around them. While some value may be derived from observing a two-dimensional world, screen use actually creates what one study calls “a video deficit: reduced learning relative to learning from live and interactive instruction.” In other words, the time children spend watching a screen could be better used playing, laughing, moving, or being read to.

Further bolstering the claim that infants and toddlers need live, responsive, face-to-face interactions with actual people is a 2018 study that found that video chatting isn’t sufficient to support word learning, even when a live person is on the screen. Researchers found that toddlers were unable to learn the words for various toys while watching and listening to a responsive person on video. The same children had no trouble learning the toy’s name when encountering the information through interacting with a responsive person present in the room.

Numerous studies also point to negative health outcomes that correlate with screen time for very young children: sleep disturbances, cognitive deficits, obesity and weight issues later in childhood, language issues, and social and emotional delays. It’s important to note that these studies aren’t all pointing to causality. In other words, we can’t claim that research has determined that digital exposure is the reason for these various negative outcomes; it may be that excessive amounts of time in front of a screen simply have an indirect detrimental effect by causing kids to miss the opportunity to be playing and interacting with caregivers and the objects of their world. There are likely other confounding factors as well, and often the studies don’t distinguish between types of screens (for example, television versus a tablet) or take into account how stimulating/ overstimulating the content might be. But parents should be aware of the correlations between screen time and these negative outcomes, regardless of how confidently we can point to causation or account fo the different variables.

This issue is likely going to be a big one for the rest of your baby’s childhood and adolescence. As he gets older you’ll have to figure out how best to limit screen time and how to protect him from the many dangers it presents-all while taking advantage of the vast number of benefits the digital world offers as well.

Think carefully about this from the very beginning, even when your child is a newborn. You may be tempted to use screens to help regulate your baby’s emotions. Infants often calm down when looking at images they may be with a mobile hanging above the crib-the baby can’t effectively process information or learn from it. What’s more, you don’t want to let screens prevent you from learning how to respond to infant distress, and you don’t want to give your child the message that every time they’re upset or have difficult feelings they should just distract themselves. When parents depend on devices to keep kids calm and quiet, those parents miss out on the opportunity to learn how to handle those moments and build self-efficacy and resilience in their children.

From time to time, you may decide to use your child’s interest in a screen to maintain your own sanity. Virtually all of us do. Just keep in mind that in the end, the goal is to be as fully present as possible and engage the attention of your infant, to support his healthy physical and cognitive development by speaking to him, playing with him, and attending to him. Doing so will make it that much easier to read his cues and get inside his mind, making it easier to help him handle moments of distress or challenge down the road.

My Bottom Line: Why This Book Is a Must Read

You see what I mean? It’s fabulous, sound advice grounded in research anddelivered with warmth and understanding. Let’s face it, there are no rewind buttons when it comes to parenting. We need the best information based on the latest science on how to raise our children. Dr. Bryson offers an essential guide to help us make those crucial early parenting decisions and it’s whyTHE BOTTOM LINE FOR BABY is such a welcomed addition to those first glorious years of child rearing and the reason I highly recommend it.

Excerpt adapted from THE BOTTOM LINE FOR BABY by Tina Payne Bryson, copyright © 2020 Tina Payne Bryson, Inc. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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