Growing up, I recall the first video game I ever saw. It was called Pong, and it was simply two lines on each end of the TV screen and a dot that bounced between them like a ping-pong game. Back then it was state of the art. Oh my, how things have changed!
So being part of what I call “one of the first electronics generations,” a sobering thing occurred as my wife and I eventually allowed our young son to watch occasional cartoons or videos when he was around age 3. As with most parents, we found there were times when it is convenient as a form of entertainment for him, but we tried not to do it often. Eventually we clearly saw deterioration in his behavior on days he watched anything on a screen. He would argue more, throw more (and more vehement) tantrums, and was more hyper. It led me to sit down and review the literature out there on the impact of screen media on children and subsequently change our “house rules” about screen time, and I think many parents would benefit from hearing about it, as it may not be something most parents really think of as being a problem.
The primary focus of this article is to help parents be aware of the impacts of screen media on behavior in young children – infants, toddlers, and early school-age kids. I am not even talking about the *content* of the media, but just the media itself.
Studies have demonstrated better development of language skills in toddlers who played with blocks and simple toys than those engaged in play with electronics, but the issue I see the most is with behavior and attention problems. This is one of the most important effects electronics have on young children, and one I see regularly in my office as well as in my own home (my son is now five). Screen time impacts behavior and capacity to pay attention via several mechanisms, and leads to sleep disturbances, attention problems, trouble with emotional control, and even addictive behaviors.
Most of our kids’ brain development occurs before age 4 years, and while the full impact of screen media is not yet known, what we do know tells us the news isn’t all good. A study in Pediatrics in 2004 showed, among other things, that “hours viewed per day at both ages one and three was associated with attentional problems at age seven.” That means how much TV they watch before age 3 can impact their brains for years to come! This is probably why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 2 should not have any screen time at all, and after age 2 the recommendation is to limit it to under 2 hours per day. Personally, I recommend even less than that, and to avoid it entirely on most days for the younger kids. Our household rule, for example, is that he is not allowed to play video games at all (we just tell him that’s not something he’s old enough for – it’s worked so far), and there is no TV or videos on “school days” (days when he has school the next day), and we limit him to a couple of hours on weekend days. It has made a difference with his behavior, as it does for most children, and I hope parents will consider this when making decisions about screen time for their young kids.
There is much more to say on the subject for which I don’t have enough space, but I hope this has helped raise awareness about screen media and will help motivate parents to pick and choose carefully how much and how often they let their kids use those screens!