Screen Time and Young Children... What's the Big Deal?
I opened up my Instagram feed the other day and counted 4 targeted ads for toddler education apps as I scrolled down. To my toddler-wrangler self, they sounded pretty appealing: "Teach your child to read!", "Award-winning app developed by teachers!", "In just two weeks, my toddler knew his colors!". If I hadn't been an expert on child language & cognition development, I would have been absent-mindedly clicking that "download" button and passing my iPad to my two-year-old.
In my work with parents of young children, the same questions generally arise... Are these educational apps actually helpful? Does my child need them to succeed? Will my child be at a disadvantage in preschool or kindergarten if they haven't used this technology?
With this issue, as with countless other parenting issues, there is so much information (and mis-information) out there that it's almost impossible to feel like you're definitely doing the right thing. In this world of information overload, how do you know what's true?
Well, you go to the science. The truth is, while it can be adorable and endearing to see your child whiz through her shapes & colors, match the letters and complete puzzles like a pro, too much screen time exposure, particularly handheld tablets, has been unequivocally proven to have long-term negative affects on children's cognition. In particular, numerous scientific studies have shown that attention span and impulse control take the biggest hit in tablet-using kiddos.
These apps, particularly those designed for children 3 and under, may offer some benefits in knowledge acquisition, but the risks of habitually using the iPad to distract your 2-year-old for hours a day far outweigh the rewards.
An article entitled What Screen Time Can Really Do to Kids' Brains by Dr. Liraz Margalit Ph.D. was published in Psychology Today in 2016. It made an enormous impact on how I viewed screen time. I'd encourage every parent to check out the entire article, but here's one of the most significant quotes:
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.”
Put more simply, parents who jump to screen time in a bid to give their kids an educational edge may actually be doing significantly more harm than good—and they need to dole out future screen time in an age-appropriate matter.*
The article goes on to outline some of the findings of the research that's been done. Tablet time in the first 3 years can permanently (yes, I said permanently!) impact the following areas of children's development: social development & making friends, preferring the immediate gratification of technology over real life, and difficulty waiting for things in the real world.
Despite the weightiness of the article, Dr. Margalit ends it on a positive note:
Despite the danger that overexposure to smartphones can pose for young brains, there are a lot of benefits to letting little ones use technology. Once a child is over the age of two, feel free to allow limited screen time—than hour, max, of playing with tablets and iPhones each day—to help develop coordination, hone quick reactions, and even sharpen language skills. As with all the other toys and tools available to your developing child, smartphone use should stay in moderation, and never stand in for human interaction or real-world face time.
The bottom line? Power off regularly to help your child understand the clear boundaries between the virtual world and the real one.*
I love her conclusion. Technology can be great. I use iPads in my sessions. They can be a useful tool for engaging the client and, yes, for teaching skills. With tablets, as it seems to be with most things in this life, it's all about boundaries.
* quotes from: What Screen Time Can Really Do to Kids' Brains, by Liraz Margalit Ph.D.