Kids' Screen Time and How It Affects Their Behavior

Nowadays, children have easy access to screens and technology that can dominate their daily lives. But as convenient as it is to put your child in front of an Xbox, computer game, or TV, have you ever wondered how screens affect early child development?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Toddler on a smartphone; do you know appropriate screen limits?For toddlers ages three and below, development happens fast. Young children learn by exploring their environment and watching those around them—even imitating them. Recognizing how too much screen time can affect a child's ability to observe and experience the daily activities needed to learn about the world is vital.

In short, excessive screen time can lead to a kind of "tunnel vision," negatively affecting a child's overall development. Whether it's smartphones, tablets, or TVs, these devices won't only affect your kid's ability to learn new things but also how they interact with others.

Related reading: “What Do We Really Know About Kids and Screens?

 

How Does Screen Time Affect a Child's Ability to Learn?

Several studies have shown that kids under two learn less from videos than when learning from another person. Even if children start experiencing screen time by six months, understanding the content doesn't happen until after two years old.

Aside from that, some studies have indicated that kids learn language best when interacting with other people face-to-face. And this learning is crucial during the ages of 1½ to 3 years when language development expands quickly.

Results from landmark National Institutes of Health (NIH) research in 2018 show that youngsters who spend over two hours a day of screen time scored lower on language and cognitive tests. On the other hand, children who spent more than seven hours a day in front of a screen had their cortex, the logical part of the brain where critical thinking and reasoning occur, thin out.

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How Screen Time Impacts Language and Communication Among Children

According to Dr. Jennifer Cross of Pediatric Behavior & Development, children’s language acquisition is most rapid between the ages of 1½ and 3 years old when they actively engage in conversation and play with people. There are indicators that children who watch a lot of television in the early elementary school years score poorly on reading exams and may show deficiencies in their ability to pay attention.

Therefore, talking with kids in a reciprocal dialogue is crucial to improve their language development and social interaction early. In other words, you have to practice back-and-forth conversation with facial expressions and reactions. Face-to-face interactions are superior in improving language and communication skills in young children instead of one-way interaction with a screen.

However, there are also different multimedia learning materials for children as they grow older that effectively develop language and cognitive skills at an early age. It’s best to monitor your child's screen time carefully while also supervising their learning material to ensure it’s age-appropriate.
Teenage girls on their smartphones at bedtime.

Did You Know That Screens Affect Children's Sleep?

Whether from TVs or smartphones, screens contain some blue light that inhibits melatonin, which can delay a child's sleep. Screen time also keeps our brains and bodies more active and alert. As a result, children can become more hyper and less inclined to sleep.

Generally, smartphones and tablets suppress melatonin more than TVs, as we usually use them closer to our faces. According to research published by the National Library of Medicine, children (ages 6 to 12 months) exposed to screens displayed shorter nighttime sleep than those with little to no exposure.

Too much screen time among preteens and teenagers can be detrimental to their behavior and cognitive performance in school. Teens who have excessive screen time generally perform poorer in school, interfering with their learning.

Also, some studies have shown that too much screen time and sleep deprivation among teens may develop into obesity. And this weight gain, in turn, negatively affects their self-esteem, often leading to greater social isolation and more screen time.  

A similar link found that kids who use screens too much and don't get enough sleep are more likely to act on impulse and make poorer choices.

How Addictive Are Digital Screens for Young Children?

The problem with smartphones, tablets, and other similar gadgets is that they draw us in, especially kids. Most everyone has experienced the pull of the internet and the enormous waste of time. However, as grown adults, we know the drawbacks of electronics and are more likely to make conscious decisions to limit them. But young children, especially those under three years old, lack impulse control, understanding, and discernment. Therefore, they are more susceptible to addiction—and often, want more and more. It’s up to parents to set healthy and age-appropriate limits.

Moreover, we should also be careful about relying on these digital screens to distract our kids from an issue rather than having the child process the feelings, figure the problem out, and learn to solve it. For instance, playing your kid's favorite song to distract them from a recent injury can help. But being there for your child, empathizing, and talking to them is more beneficial.

Teens on social media. How much digital screen time is too much?

Screen Time and Children's Behavior

According to a recent study published by Preventive Medicine Reports, children who spend seven hours or more per day in front of screens are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression compared to those who use screens for an hour per day. There is a clear connection between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents. For a holistic approach to anxiety or depression, Modern Holistic Health offers a new paradigm worth checking out.

The above study indicated that children who spent excessive hours on screens (not including homework) were more easily distracted, less emotionally stable, and had more difficulty accomplishing chores and establishing friends than those who spent only an hour a day on screens.

So, What Age Is Appropriate to Introduce Screens?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends not introducing screens to children before two years old. According to their recent study in April 2022, it's the time when your child understands the content they're looking at, but make sure to limit it to one hour a day. Also, make the most of that hour and let your kid tune into top-quality educational programs that are fun and appealing to a younger audience.

Sometimes a helpful practice is to allow your child to enjoy their daily screen time when you need to get something done around the house, for work, or when you're preparing dinner. Either way, letting them watch a previewed TV show is far better than simply giving your child a phone or tablet.

Can the Effects of Screen Time Be Undone?

One of the best ways to help kids undo the effects of too much screen time is to change the brain patterns that cause anxiety or other negative behavioral changes. Then, with a new set of lower baseline brain patterns, often the child can handle screen time more effectively. Neurofeedback brain training has been shown to change the way kids’ (and adults’) brains work, making it easier for them to focus. Of course, it's important to limit screen time to keep the brain in its optimum mode.

Digital Dementia is a real thing in our world of heavy tech use. And keeping our kids healthy and happy is a challenge in this digital age. To help your children deal with the effects of their digital use and screen time, implementing a combination of holistic health options alongside enhanced awareness and reasonable tech use will help assure good mental health.

 

How to Limit Screen Time for Kids: 3 Proven Tips

1. Keep all the essential parts of the day screen-free.

These times include mealtimes, bedtime, and family time. Avoid using any gadgets during dinner or times together. Instead, take advantage of the time to bond with your kids. One exception to this rule might be if you're on a long trip with the fam. Then you can use your gadgets but set a curfew for all of you along with agreed-upon limits.

Remember, balancing online and offline time is the key!

2. Limit YOUR screen time.

Most kids imitate what they see their parents doing, especially younger toddlers! Children consider their parents as the most vital people in their lives when young, so it's natural for them to model whatever behavior their parents are showing.

So, if your child sees you behind a screen every day for hours on end, don't be surprised if they do the same! After all, this example makes your kid think that it's acceptable, and they will naturally copy you.

3. Co-watch when you can.

When your children have screen time, the best way to manage it is by watching the show or game with them. This way, you will be able to monitor better and help them understand the content accurately while reinforcing your family’s values. Make the most out of the time by commenting on things you see, asking your child about what they think is happening, and encouraging them to sing along with the songs!

Either way, co-watching while reinforcing specific concepts after screen time will help your child retain those pieces of information better.

 Weigh the information about the effects of screen time on children and teens alike and make a conscious, educated decision. Try one of the suggestions above and see if they might put your mind at rest. Just remember, the younger the child, the less screen time is advised.

If you'd like a parent coach to help you, empowering parents is one of Heartmanity's specialties. Check out our parenting resources.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer’s mission is to create thriving relationships at home and work. She coaches children, teens, and their parents in Bozeman, Montana. Jennifer is a parenting instructor of Redirecting Children's Behavior and an Instructor Trainer for the International Network for Children and Families. She's been a parent educator for over twenty years. Jennifer is also the author of "The Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence for Children" and co-author of "Hacking the Teen Brain" courses. She frequents homes and schools regularly as a behavioral consultant to help with challenging behaviors. Jennifer is married to her beloved husband and is the mother of three grown, fantastic children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting, Emotional Intelligence & Fitness

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