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What Screens are Doing to Your Kids

Exploring the Effects of Screen Media on Child Development

It's still unclear whether early exposure to screen media alters the developing brain, as research on children under 5 years learning from screens is limited. However, studies do show that babies can be captivated by TV without absorbing its content. Between 6 and 14 months, they can imitate specific actions seen on screen, and by 18 months, they can remember brief sequences.

Towards the end of their second year, children start to grasp content. Evidence suggests that infants and toddlers struggle to transfer learning from a 2D representation to a 3D object, making it difficult for them to learn from TV at this age. Instead, face-to-face interaction with parents and caregivers is crucial for early learning, as it's more engaging, enriching, and developmentally efficient.

Screen Time: Benefits and Risks for Development

From around 2 years old, high-quality, age-appropriate TV programs with specific educational goals can support early language and literacy development. Additionally, such programming fosters cognitive growth, including positive racial attitudes and imaginative play. Early evidence also indicates that interactive media, particularly apps that involve responsive adult input, can help children retain information. There's some evidence that 'learn-to-read' apps and e-books can build early literacy skills, but preschoolers still learn best through direct interactions with caring adults.

Research has shown associations between heavy early screen exposure and significant language delays, as well as mixed evidence of a link between screen time and attentional difficulties. High exposure to background TV can negatively affect language use, attention, cognitive development, and executive function in children under 5. E-books can offer reading engagement benefits, but parents may use fewer reading strategies during these interactions, and sound effects and animation can hinder story comprehension in preschoolers.

Prolonged TV viewing has been linked to lower cognitive abilities related to short-term memory, early reading, math skills, and language development. Fast-paced or violent content can adversely affect executive function, and young children's inability to distinguish reality from on-screen events may interfere with executive function development.

In today's digital age, it's crucial to understand the impact of media exposure on infants and toddlers. There is evidence suggesting that excessive screen time can pose developmental risks, so it's essential for parents to limit their young children's screen time. By doing so, they create more opportunities for face-to-face interactions, which is how young children learn best.

When screen time is approached thoughtfully and intentionally, it can become a positive learning experience for children. For this to happen, adults should:

  1. Watch alongside children, connecting the content to real-life experiences and fostering language and cognitive skills. This shared experience avoids the downsides of solitary viewing.

  2. Carefully select age-appropriate, educational content, steering clear of mainstream or commercial programs. Utilize media classification ratings, like the Canadian Home Video Rating System, to guide viewing choices.

  3. Encourage a balance of touch screen use with creative or active play.

While a digital divide still exists in Canada, mobile learning apps could help bridge the gap. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has committed to providing universal Internet access. However, it's important to recognize that children with more involved parents and better financial resources may benefit more from screen time. Health providers should be mindful of this potential disparity.

Co-viewing quality screen content can have psychosocial benefits as well, influencing children's social skills, sleep patterns, and behavior. Although socioeconomic factors can shape screen use, raising awareness about screen time limits and optimal learning strategies is essential for all families.

Quality content can improve social and language skills for children aged 2 and older, especially those living in poverty or facing other disadvantages. Educational programs and screen activities can promote pro-social behavior, teaching children empathy, tolerance, and respect. When used appropriately, screen time can even provide comfort in stressful situations.

Creating a family media action plan can help maintain quality family time and establish healthy screen habits early on. It's important for parents to set limits, be comfortable saying 'no' to excessive screen time, and prioritize off-screen time for essential life skill development like self-regulation, creativity, and physical play.

Potential Risks to Psychosocial Development

The increasing presence of screens in our lives is raising concerns about their impact on the psychosocial well-being of children and families. Studies have found a strong connection between parents' screen time and their children's, which can lead to reduced quality in parent-child interactions.

Research has shown that as parents spend more time on their smartphones, children are more likely to act out in order to gain attention, often resulting in negative interactions. Parents who frequently let their young children use smartphones also tend to use these devices as rewards or distractions, leading to increased dependency and frustration if access is denied.

The intense attention demanded by smartphones, as well as the blurred boundaries between work and home life, can create stress and make it difficult for parents to engage fully in the moment with their children. This can have long-term consequences, with studies suggesting links between excessive TV exposure at a young age and social isolation, aggression, and anti-social behaviors later in childhood.

Interestingly, research has shown that excessive screen media exposure is more closely related to low levels of stimulation in the home and low parental involvement than to socioeconomic position. Although the spread of mobile devices has not significantly impacted the frequency of reading to young children, studies have found that reading is the least common activity on these devices. Parents also report that sharing an e-book with a child is a less positive experience than reading a traditional paper book, which offers sensory experiences and opportunities for skill development that digital versions cannot replicate.

The key to mitigating psychosocial risks associated with screen time is ensuring access to quality educational content. However, studies show that children's engagement with optimal content decreases as they grow older and become more drawn to entertainment programming. It is crucial for parents to be mindful of their own screen habits, create a healthy balance, and prioritize high-quality, age-appropriate content for their children to foster positive psychosocial development.

Mindful use of screen time:

Navigating screen time with young children can be challenging, but mindful use can make all the difference in ensuring a positive impact on their development. Children under the age of 5 learn best through interactive, engaging experiences with family members and caregivers. In fact, when given the option, they'll typically choose conversation, play, or being read to over screen time.

To make the most of screen time, parents and caregivers should:

  1. Actively engage in and limit media experiences by thoughtfully choosing content together, setting a specific time, and having a clear purpose for watching or playing.

  2. Restrict screen use in public places and during family routines like mealtime, as these moments provide valuable opportunities for social learning.

  3. Opt for non-commercial, high-quality content to minimize exposure to advertising and potentially harmful messages.

  4. Be mindful of the messages conveyed in media content, paying attention to themes related to gender, body image, violence, diversity, and social issues.

By using screen time mindfully and prioritizing meaningful interactions, parents and caregivers can help create a balanced, nurturing environment that supports their children's growth and development.

Modelling Screen Time:

The way parents and caregivers approach screen time can greatly influence the development of children under 5 years old. To ensure healthy development, it's essential for children to engage in active play and spend quality time with family. Modeling responsible screen habits is crucial to creating a nurturing environment for young children.

When parents exhibit healthy screen habits, they:

  1. Limit their own screen time when young children are present, especially during mealtimes, play, and other key opportunities for social learning.

  2. Prioritize interaction with children by engaging in conversation, play, and healthy, active routines.

  3. Make conscious decisions about when to use media together, and turn off screens when not in use, promoting mindful screen time.

  4. Guide children in identifying and questioning advertising messages, stereotypes, and other problematic content. Additionally, ensure that media used in the presence of children is free from such content.

By modeling responsible screen time habits, parents and caregivers can foster a balanced and supportive environment that helps young children develop crucial life skills and thrive.

To foster healthy development in children within today's digital landscape, physicians and healthcare providers should offer guidance to parents and caregivers on appropriate screen time usage. Key recommendations include:

Final Thoughts/Recommendations

Limiting screen time:

  • Avoid screen time for children under 2 years old.

  • For ages 2 to 5, restrict daily screen time to under 1 hour.

  • Refrain from making sedentary screen time a routine part of childcare for children under 5.

  • Designate daily "screen-free" periods, especially during family meals and book-sharing.

  • Keep screens off at least 1 hour before bedtime to prevent potential melatonin-suppressing effects.

Reducing screen time risks:

  • Be present and engaged during screen time, co-viewing with children whenever possible.

  • Focus on age-appropriate, educational, and interactive content.

  • Utilize parenting strategies that promote self-regulation, calming, and limit-setting.

Practicing mindful screen time as a family:

  • Assess current screen habits and create a family media plan outlining when, where, and how screens may be used.

  • Help children recognize and question problematic content, such as advertising messages and stereotypes.

  • Remember that excessive screen time can hinder learning opportunities, and there's no evidence supporting early technology introduction.

Modelling healthy screen use for adults:

  • Opt for alternative activities like reading, outdoor play, and creative, hands-on tasks.

  • Turn off devices during family time at home.

  • Switch off screens when not in use and avoid background TV.

By utilizing these guidelines, parents and caregivers can create a balanced, nurturing environment that supports the well-being and development of young children in an increasingly digital world.

Remember, not all screen are created equal, and like all things, it is important not to try and find absolute answers to these questions. The use of technology in our lives have both power benefits and equally powerful consequences. Understanding that a nuanced and critical approach to screen time, is likely the most effective way to have healthy relationships with technology.

Next time, we'll take a look at the stigma surrounding video games and development. The research may surprise you!



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