Toddlers and screen time; what do we really know?

Toddlers and screen time; what do we really know?

With the massive universal increase in portable screen devices in the last ten years, more and more of us parents are *guiltily* wondering what impact screen time might have on our children. 

As a mother to a toddler I know all too well the struggle. You desperately need to clear up, pack lunches, take a shower or make a phone call. Meanwhile your little one is systematically destroying your house and bringing you fists full of dirty cat litter. It’s all too easy to put on their favourite T.V. show and get on with what you need to. Safe and remorseful in the knowledge that they are glued to the screen. We know it’s wrong, we hear the mum police bellowing that it’s bad for our children, but sometimes needs must.

So what do we actually know about the impacts of excessive screen time on our toddlers? How much exactly constitutes too much?

Well, the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) recommends no screen time at all until the age of 24 months. After that an hour or less a day for toddlers aged 2-5 years old is the advised amount. At this age their brains are developing more rapidly than any other time of life. 

A 2019 study concluded that the white matter part of the brain developed slower in the brains of toddlers who were having excessive screen time, compared with those who weren’t. This was an in depth study that used MRI scans to look at the brain of toddlers. For the non-scientists among us (raises hand) the white matter part of the brain is involved in language, literacy, mental control and self regulation. The lead researcher in this study and director of the “reading and literacy discovery center” at Cincinnati children’s hospital, was Dr J Hutton. She believes that this negative correlation between screen time and brain development is because young children’s development “relies heavily on interactions with people and the world around them”. 

Screen time vs lack of interaction.

This raises the question, is it the screens themselves that are the problem? Or the fact that when they are watching T.V. they are getting no human interaction? Well in short, it’s both. As we know screen time is usually passive. There is no input at all needed from the child. We’ve all seen how easily a child can sit and zone out in front of a T.V. It’s not challenging them or their senses in any way, you don’t have to be an expert to see that. 

“There’s a danger that children will become more responsive to media than to people” says Reshma Naidoo, director of Cognitive Neuroscience at Niklaus children’s hospital in Miami. She strongly advises that parents who let their children watch T.V. should strive to interact with them throughout.

Research Limitations.

There are admittedly problems with the research that is available. There are very few longitudinal studies (repeated observations of the same children) in this area. Afterall how many parents would be happy letting their child watch six plus hours of T.V. a day for the sake of an experiment. Critics also point out that all screen time is not the same, and I strongly agree. There is a big difference between playing a video game and watching a well thought out and age appropriate show. Chatting to the Grandparents over Skype is different again. There is also no consideration within the studies of the other experiences and input that the children involved are having. 

But the overwhelming conclusion from all of the studies can’t be ignored. Younger children learn far more from a real life face to face interaction than from a person on a screen. As they get older their ability to learn from specially designed children’s media increases. But even then it is far more efficient when coupled with the interaction of an adult. A 2020 study from the university of Singapore even showed that too much screen time (three plus hours a day) can lead to a child being more sedentary by the time they are at school age and developing social problems. A combination of disproportionate screen time, too little sleep and lack of physical exercise has the worst outcomes on a child’s development.

Advice for Parents. 

I can hear you all groaning through the screen, and I am right there with you. We are already overwhelmingly busy trying to raise our children, earn a wage, be a good friend, prepare fresh meals, keep the pets (and partner) happy, exercise, drink enough water and not lose our freaking minds. And we can’t with an easy conscience let our kids watch T.V. for a bit so we can get these things done? Don’t worry, we can, but the keys to doing it responsibly are moderation, interaction, and quality of media.

Moderation and interaction.

If you are currently feeling terrible that your toddler is watching more than one hour of T.V. a day, rest assured you are not alone. A recent study showed that most parents don’t (or realistically can’t) heed the advice of the AAP. 80-90% of our toddlers are actually having two to three hours a day. Keep it to as little time as is humanly possible, and interact with them as much as you can. Toddlers are learning, engrossed and engaged so much of every single day. Sometimes it is perfectly O.K. for them to relax and switch off in front of a T.V. show, just as us adults would do. Just not for too long

Quality of Media.

There are many shows available that are marketed as educational. Whether they in fact are or not is a topic of debate. But it’s better to choose those shows over mindless ones. It’s important to also choose something age appropriate. Toddlers’ brains work slower than older children, so they are going to absorb information better from something that is gently paced. A particularly great choice are child focused apps as they encourage the child to have an impact on what happens. 

A tablet designed specifically for young children is a nice idea too. Your child gets the gratification of screen time, and you get a vast array of interactive games to choose from, plus full control over what they have access to (and for how long). Try this one from Amazon that has full parent and child approval.

To take away.

I think the main thing to keep in mind is that these toddler years, whilst full on and seemingly relentless, are in fact short and temporary. It’s so important that we nurture these precious growing brains while we can, and as best we can. Get outside in the fresh air, read books and fill your child up with love. At the same time we have to go easy on ourselves and not expect the impossible. As with most things in life the secret is balance and common sense.

God speed Mamma!!

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