What’s the Deal with Screen Time?

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It was Friday night, which meant that I was going out to eat at a restaurant with my husband and 4-month-old son. I hopped in the driver’s seat and my husband jumped in the back with the baby. Not long into the drive, I pulled up at a stoplight and looked over at the car next to me. I saw a few little ones in the back seat happily watching a movie on a portable DVD player, quiet as can be.

In comparison, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw my husband trying desperately to keep our little one happy by performing a very elaborate song and dance with the wide selection of baby toys that we brought along.

kids-watching-tv

Later, at the restaurant, I glanced over at the table next to us and saw two small children sitting peacefully at the table with their parents. The older child was quietly playing a game on his handheld gaming device and the younger one was watching a cartoon on his mother’s iPhone.

Back at our table, my husband and I were passing our little boy back and forth when he became fussy, making faces at him, helping him grab at different toys, talking to him, and anything else that would keep him content while we ate our meals. Our routine now is quite a bit different than the date nights of our past, but we wouldn’t change it for the world!

So which way is easier? Definitely not the way we do it. Would I have a more peaceful car ride if I propped a screen in front of my little one? Absolutely. Would I be in physical therapy for a shoulder injury from carrying my son around if I let him watch a movie when he got fussy instead of picking him up? Probably not. Would my life be easier with more screens? Yes! So why don’t I use them? Keep reading to find out.

What is Screen Time?

First we should probably talk about what qualifies as screen time. Obviously watching TV counts, but so does any other time your child spends looking at a screen. Do you hand your child your phone to keep him quiet in a waiting room? That screen time.

Screen time also includes watching movies on portable DVD players, playing games on a tablet or computer, browsing the internet, looking at a phone, etc. It doesn’t matter if your child is watching a video that will teach him to read at a ridiculously early age, playing an educational video game, or watching a cartoon. Screen time is screen time and the content is irrelevant.

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)

The American Academy of Pediatrics states on its website that children under the age of two years should not have any screen time at all. Did you catch that? No screen time for children under the age of 2 years! Older children and teens should be limited to one to two hours of screen time per day. Children older than 2 years (and teens) should have no more than 1-2 hours of screen time per day!

Does that seem shocking to you? It may, since the average American child spends seven hours per day on entertainment media, including phones, tablets, computers, TVs, and electronic devices. So why does the AAP recommend such strict limits? Because of the research currently available on the risks of screen time. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Research about Screen Time:

According to the AAP:

“Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.” You can read more about this on the AAP website here.

As a speech-language pathologist, I have a particular interest in the effects of screen time on language development. I have noticed that many of my clients with the most significant speech and language delays have strong addictions to screen time.

There are many studies that are beginning to link screen time with language delays, such as this one by Chonchaiya and Pruksananonda that found that children who began watching television before 12 months and who watched more than 2 hours of TV per day were six times more likely to have language delays! Yikes!!

What is a Screen-Bound Child Missing Out On?

The other danger of screen time is what the child is missing out on due to over-use of screens. Any moment spent in front of a screen is time taken away a different type of stimulus that children need to grow and develop as people. For example, time spent in front of a screen is time taken away from person-to-person interactions. These interactions teach children the complex social rules that govern how we interact and get along with others.

Screen time also takes away from time reading books. Reading to your children is one of the best ways to ensure good speech and language development later in life.

Screen-bound children also miss out on opportunities to physically play with toys, which is how they develop motor skills and learn about how the world works. For example, if I stack 16 blocks up in a single tower, they fall over. Boom! I just learned about gravity! Children learn through play and they need those experiences to develop and grow. Sure, they may know how to use an I-Pad by the time their 18 months old, but will they learn how to stack blocks and put together a simple puzzle?

Another important skill that these screen-bound children are missing the opportunity to learn is how to behave. Before screens, children had to learn how to behave in a restaurant at a very early age, lest their parents enforce strict punishments upon them for acting up in public. Now, when children go out into public, they are often so distracted by the electronic devices that they don’t have an opportunity to act up and find out which behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate. They also don’t have the chance to learn about good restaurant or shopping etiquette by observing their parents because they are too distracted. Transfixing a child with a screen until he is subdued is not the same as teaching a child good manners and how to behave.

But What Can I Do?

If you are concerned about your child’s addiction to screens, or if your child already has a speech or language delay, you can take action immediately. Start reducing the amount of time your child is allowed to be in front of screens and take note of any differences you see. These may be negative reactions at first (as you take away something he loves), but eventually you should see other improvements emerge. For more information about screen time, including how to take it away and what to do instead, check out my post about screen time and language development:

Sure, my family dinners are much more chaotic than those of the family at the next table over. Yes, our car rides can get a little…loud. And I’m sure that will only get worse as we enter the toddler years and start adding more kids to the mix. But for me, it is totally worth it. I know that parenting is hard but I also know that parenting a child with attention problems, sleep problems, learning difficulties, or language delays can be even harder. A few moments of peace for me now are simply not worth risking my child’s development now and in the future. We’ll continue our song and dance and the endless parade of toys and books. I hope you will join me!