All your questions about the science of screen time, answered!
These days, screens are an inevitable part of parenting. Shows can be a savior during a long car ride or a rainy afternoon and video calling is a great way to keep in touch with family and friends. Kids just love screens! It's no wonder that in the United States, the average child between 8 months and 8 years of age watches nearly 4 hours of background TV on a typical day (5). While screens are not all bad, finding a balance between positive screen time and too much screen time can be a challenge! We've got all the latest science on screen time and brain development for you, so that you can make the most informed choice when it comes to pressing that power button.
The basics on brain development
While many things can influence brain development, there are two major players in child brain development, and you've probably heard of them both. First things first, sleep! Growing children need a lot of sleep, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends between 10-12 hours for children 6-12 (6). A good night of sleep is important for proper brain development, as you need REM sleep (a.k.a. deep sleep) to process and store information learned from the day into memory (1). However, things like screen time can get in the way of getting a good night's rest. This is because screens emit blue light that can keep your body from releasing the proper sleep hormone, melatonin, at bedtime. Studies have shown that children who watch TV or use some sort of screen, like a smartphone, at night end up sleeping less than children who did not get any screen time before bed (2).
The second major thing that influences child brain development is interaction from people. Brain development in children, particularly children under the age of three, happens really quickly (2). During this phase, the brain is constantly making new connections and removing connections that are not as frequently used (1). While children still learn from a video, studies have shown that they learn less information (2). This is why it is so important during this phase to expose children to many different experiences (1). Children learn the best by watching adults in their lives and imitating them; too much screen time can prevent children from exploring their environment and engaging in activities that teach them more about the world (2).
How does screen time affect children's ability to learn
Too much screen time can impact a child's ability to learn. In one study, researchers looked at the effects of screen time and time spent reading on the part of the brain responsible for language, thinking and visual control (3). They found that time spent reading led to more language connections while screen time resulted in the development of less language connections in the brain (3). When it comes to language development, which grows the most between 1.5 to 3 years of age, research shows that children pick up language most quickly when interacting with adults (2). This is because talking with children in what is called "reciprocal dialogue" or back-and-forth conversation where there are facial expressions and reactions to what a person is saying is critical for proper language development and social interaction (2). Watching TV, where there is less or none of the back and forth does not improve language and communication skills as well (2).
Are there kid's shows worth watching?
Yes, there are! Not all shows are created equal and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends shows from Sesame Workshop and PBS as educational content that benefits children's learning and brain development (7). You can also check out Common Sense Media for a rating guide on which shows are appropriate for everyone in the family to watch. While you still want to keep TV to a minimum, especially for young children, these shows can be helpful in a pinch when you need to calm a child down, need some time to rest yourself, or want to watch some TV together.
How to make the most of screen time
So, what's the verdict? Basically, not all screen time is created equal, and as a parent or guardian, you will want to look for high-quality programming when giving children screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that caregivers actively engage with their children when watching TV, which will help in the learning and brain development process (4). And if you're on your smartphone, turn it into an opportunity to encourage your child to actively play or use their creativity to enhance the experience (5).
Tips to build healthy screen time habits
- For children younger than 18 months, limit screen time to just video-chatting (4).
- Identify educational content for your child to watch on TVs and apps. (5)
- Give your child your full attention when interacting with them, and ask them to do the same (1).
- Do not use screens (phones, tablets, TV) during meal-times (1).
- Avoid blue light-emitting screens 1 hour before bedtime (1, 4)
- Play online games with your children and encourage them to use their critical thinking while playing (1).
- Help your children find activities outside of screen time that they enjoy (1).
- If screen time is leading to meltdowns and protests, this podcast is a good resource with tips on how to handle the request for "just one more show."