Screentime and Brain Development

Helpful Tips: Screentime & Brain Development

Hello Parents!

With media all around us, how much screen time is too much? How does screen time affect your child’s brain development?  In the first three years of your child’s life, 80% of their brain development occurs. This is called the critical period.  It is the permanent foundation upon which all later brain function is built.  In order for their brain to develop during this critical period, they need specific stimuli from the outside environment not found on screens.  If your child does not get enough of the required stimuli from the real world, their development becomes stunted.

Your child needs consistent verbal and nonverbal interactions to ensure proper brain development specifically in the frontal lobe.  The brain’s frontal lobe is the area responsible for decoding and comprehending social interactions like being able to empathize with others and take in nonverbal cues (facial expressions and gestures, tone of voice)  It’s development is  dependent on human interaction.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested that for children younger than 2 years, evidence for benefits of media is still limited, adult interaction with the child during media use is crucial, and there continues to be evidence of harm from excessive digital media use

Among the AAP recommendations (10/2016):

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

There is additional research to keep in mind.  Just having the TV on in the background at your home, 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. Less talking means less learning.

Screentime also includes use of tablets and smartphones.  When very small children get hooked on tablets and smartphones, says Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, they can unintentionally cause permanent damage to their still-developing brains. Too much screen time too soon, he says, “is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed.”

Infants and toddlers need to learn how to interact with the people around them. 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.  By using tablets and smartphones every finger swipe brings about a response of colors and shapes and sounds.  Your child’s brain responds gleefully with the neurotransmitter dopamine, the key component in our reward system that is associated with feelings of pleasure. Dopamine hits in the brain can feel almost addictive, and when a child gets too used to an immediate stimuli response, they will learn to always prefer smartphone-style interaction—that is, immediate gratification and response—over real-world connection. But this is true in the on-screen world, but nowhere else.

So if your young child is spending all of his time in front of an iPad instead of chatting and playing with teachers and other children, his empathetic abilities—the near-instinctive way you and I can read situations and get a feel for other people—will be dulled, possibly for good.

Therefore, regardless of content, try to cap your child’s electronic entertainment time at 1 hour a day from ages two through five years.  

Additional Recommendations from the AAP include:

  • Turn off televisions and other devices when not in use.  
  • Try to avoid using media as the only way to calm your child. Although there are intermittent times (eg, medical procedures, airplane flights) when media is useful as a soothing strategy, there is concern that using media as strategy to calm could lead to problems with limit setting or the inability of children to develop their own emotion regulation.
  • Monitor children’s media content and what apps are used or downloaded.
  • Test apps before the child uses them, play together, and ask the child what he or she thinks about the app.
  • Keep bedrooms, mealtimes, and parent–child playtimes screen free for children and parents. Parents can set a “do not disturb” option on their phones during these times.
  • No screens 1 hour before bedtime, and remove devices from bedrooms before bed.
  • Consult the American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Use Plan, available here.

Please feel free to email me with any questions!

Charlene 🙂


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About the Author: Charlene