I survived watching plenty of cognitive garbage throughout childhood, but my mother couldn’t put the TV in the stroller.
Or on the bus, in the shopping cart, or elsewhere, like a parent can today.
Due in part to the hyperportability of screens, children younger than ever are watching them regularly and spending more time doing it. And it may be getting in the way of early language development and literacy.
In the first study of its kind, MRI brain scans of 3- to 5-year-olds found those who used screens more than an hour a day had lower measures of development in the brain’s white matter, where language and literacy take root.
“White matter is the wiring of the brain called myelin, which makes the connections in the brain faster. The more stimulation these pathways get, the more the body says, ‘Let’s reinforce these connections and build more,’” said Dr. John Hutton, pediatrician and lead author of the study.
He’s also a clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and directs the Reading & Literacy Discovery Center there.
It’s alarming since the first five years of life are when the brain grows most and relies on human interaction, not screens, to optimize that.
“The bigger factor for younger kids is it gets in the way of interacting with adults. They learn language and emotional connection from humans. Screens tend to get in the way,” he said.
Especially since portable devices are designed to be used in isolation, and they’re becoming as ubiquitous as pacifiers.
According to Hutton, 90% of kids are on some kind of screen by the time they’re 1. In his work, he’s seen infants as young as 2-4 months old exposed to screens regularly.
On one occasion, a parent told him they were trying their best to encourage more screen time because they “knew their child would learn things that way.”
In the study of 47 preschoolers, average daily use was around 1.5 hours and ranged anywhere from 10 minutes to 12 hours a day. Sixty percent had their own, dedicated device, and the rest had a screen in their bedroom.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 2 to 5 have no more than one hour of screen time a day, and for parents to co-view that hour with them. The World Health Organization recommends none before age 5.
This is because increased screen time among children has been linked to poorer sleep and slowed progress in developing communication, problem-solving, and social skills over time.
But the lure of so-called educational games and apps, along with busy schedules and increased parent screen time makes screens an easy shortcut that children enjoy, and parents can rely on for keeping them entertained.
“Younger kids are still trying to figure out how to calm themselves. And today there’s less tolerance for being bored. But dealing with being bored is a big developmental milestone,” Hutton said.
Screens don’t cause brain damage, but the concern lies mostly in how much they’re consuming and how young they’re starting.
“Having a child watch a movie isn’t a big deal; it’s when it’s a long-term pattern and it’s not reinforcing their brain networks,” he said.
Educating parents and caregivers is key. Here are some tips to help from healthychildren.org and American Society of Pediatrics:
- For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting.
- For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs only.
- Keep bedrooms screen-free: Screens in bedrooms nurture isolation, interrupt sleep, and normalize 24/7 access to screens.
- Don’t listen to the hype: Children learn best from interacting with caring adults, not from online “educational” games.
- Co-watch: Watch media together and have a conversation. Explain what’s happening and encourage questions.
- Choose device-free times and spaces: For example, yes, in the car, no at home.
- Set the example: Setting limitations on screen time isn’t easy if the adults at home aren’t modeling the same behavior.
- Talk and play instead: What really boosts social and emerging literacy skills is play and conversation.
- Encourage other inclusive activities: Young children love to help. Cook together, put the wet clothes in the dryer, or sweep the leaves outside.
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.