The short answer: Yes.
For starters, screen time starts babies on a path of using electronics to regulate their emotions. It shortens their attention span. Saps their creativity.
Bored? Turn on a show. Sad? Watch YouTube. Anxious? Scroll through social media.
Well, not social media. Yet.
Going into parenthood, most of us do not PLAN to have our kids use electronic devices so young. So why does it happen? Let me paint a picture of how babies start having screen time, why screen time is bad for babies, and what is the price. Because I am seeing the negative effects on kids of all ages everyday.
And the price is big.
HOW SCREEN TIME STARTS
Usually it is quite innocent. Parents of the 21st century spend large amounts of time on phones without even noticing. There are apps for everything. Record what time the baby last fed, pooped, peed. Take a picture. Order more diapers online. Videochat with relatives. Check our feeds. Watch a video. The list goes on.
So the phone is naturally out a lot. When babies are newborns, they really aren’t noticing much around them yet so it just works. On top of that, parents are tired. VERY tired. And to relax, many people will use the phone as a way to decompress in those last few minutes of the baby’s nap. No harm done, right?
OK, so now your baby is 4 months old. They are no longer the oblivious newborn they once were. Now they notice and want to grab everything around them. Your hair, their toys, your PHONE. You can’t take a quick peak at your phone or watch a show on TV without the baby noticing by this point.
So then, sometimes we (or other caregivers) give the phone to them or turn on the TV. Just a few minutes. “It’s only a kid’s show – it’s educational. Look, he likes it!”
And this is how easily it starts for those not actively trying to avoid screen time for their baby.
Let me step back for a moment to explain something. Mindfulness. Have you heard this term before? If not, it means being present and in the moment. It is in the media a lot lately because we know that being mindful has a positive impact on our mental health. Being mindful can help with stress management, for example. As adults, we would benefit from focusing on our own mindfulness. We should also do everything we can to preserve our baby’s mindfulness for the sake of their future mental health and, in fact, our own.
We are all naturally mindful at birth. If you observe a 6 month old, you will notice complete engagement in what he or she is doing whether it is playing with the zipper of your diaper bag or simply watching your lips move as you talk.
Somewhere along the way, many kids lose that mindfulness. How often do you go to a restaurant and see an entire family looking on their phones? Even toddlers mesmerized by their own tablet with a YouTube video? Nobody talking, nobody engaging.
This is just one example of how screen time interferes with mindfulness. Kids lose out on learning how to have a conversation at a meal. How to entertain themselves if they are done eating before everyone else. And the art of eating mindfully.
TYPES OF ENTERTAINMENT
Before I delve more into screen time specifically, let me explain how I think about entertainment for our babies. I divide it into 3 categories:
- Low stimulation – A toy or activity that provides entertainment without giving any feedback. The child is an active participant in creating the fun. Example: books, wood toys, blocks, balls
- Medium stimulation – A toy or activity that provides entertainment by giving feedback initiated by the child. The child actively participates in creating the fun but the amount of feedback given occurs with minimal participation by the child. Kind of like a slot machine. Example: Toys that make sounds, play music, flash lights, vibrate or move when a child simply pushes a button.
- High stimulation – A toy or activity that provides entertainment by giving feedback not initiated by the child. The child becomes a passive recipient of the feedback being given. Children’s programming often features a lot of movement, color and sound and is exciting but highly stimulating. Example: Screen activities such as watching a video or a movie.
(This article from the American Academy of Pediatrics provides further guidance on selecting toys for children.)
Did you notice that as an activity progresses to higher levels of stimulation, the child plays less of a role in creating fun? There are many more opportunities to exercise creativity when playing with toys like blocks than when watching a show on a phone. This is how screen time robs our kids of their creative skills.
Attention span is also affected by screen time because there is constant novelty as the show switches from scene to scene. The opposite is true with low stimulation toys. Think of the level of concentration it takes to stack a tower of blocks.
THE PARENT ROLE IN PLAY
Playing and interacting with babies while playing with them is crucial to their social-emotional development and overall brain development. Simply talking and smiling at your baby is teaching them social skills.
Low stimulation toys by nature require more parental interaction for play until the child learns to instigate and play on his or her own. This takes time and effort on the parent’s part which can be a challenge when we are busy.
THE SCREEN TIME TRAP
The thing is, giving a baby a phone to play with leaves less work for a parent to keep the baby entertained. And it just works so well as a babysitter. It is much easier to do this than to read a book or play blocks. We tend to naturally gravitate towards things that are easier and I think this is what unknowingly happens to parents if they are not putting in safeguards to avoid it.
Here’s the problem with doing this. Highly stimulating activities sets a child’s expectation for fun so high that when they shift play to something of lower stimulation, they find it boring. Who wants to play with blocks when they can play a game on their parent’s phone?
Once they start down the path of using the phone for entertainment, they grow up with the expectation that entertainment needs to come from outside themselves. They have a harder time playing on their own without that high level of stimulation. They have a harder time with self regulation. In essence, they are learning NOT to be present and in the moment. They start to lose their mindfulness.
IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE TO AVOID SCREENS?
Here’s the tough part. Being a parent is H-A-R-D. I know. I am one too. People would tell me when my kids were young, “There is no way you will be able to get away with not having your kids watch TV – you have twins!” But, I try to practice what I preach which is no screen time before age 2.
Not going to lie. It was hard. Before kids, my husband and I had the TV on in the background all the time. After the twins were born, we would simply turn them the opposite direction when the TV was on so they couldn’t see it. But once they started straining their neck in all kinds of contorted positions just to see the TV, we knew it was time to turn it off.
This is the current AAP recommendation for screen time in babies and toddlers
Under 18 months: No screen time unless video-chatting
18-24 months: If a family chooses to introduce screen time, pick high quality programming/apps and engage in the activity together. Avoid letting children use media alone.
Over 24 months: Limit screen time to 1 hour a day. Co-view or co-play with the child.American Academy of Pediatrics
As you can see from the current guidelines, there is still a way to incorporate screen time that encourages active participation from the child. It’s all about the connection between the parent and the child. If you are sitting with your child while watching a show, asking questions and talking to them while you watch, this can still be an enriching environment. We just recommend you wait to do this until your child is at least 18 months old.
You might be thinking, I am just so tired. And busy. If putting a show on for 30 minutes buys me some time to cook dinner or just have a moment to myself, shouldn’t I take it?
Well yes, we should all absolutely take time for ourselves. But, remember, there is a tradeoff when we use screen time for the baby to buy our time.
If we choose to use screen time as our go-to when the baby is fussy or bored, it becomes a crutch for those emotions. The baby doesn’t learn how to self regulate which can lead to more behavioral issues down the road. They learn that screen time is what they need when they are bored. Parents get stuck giving the baby the phone at the restaurant or store to prevent a huge meltdown. This then perpetuates the behavior the next time.
Now let’s take a look at the alternative. If we put the work in now to teach the baby how to handle boredom or sadness without screen time, it will actually give us more time in the long run. Our kids will be better equipped to handle their emotions. Their ability to be creative and mindful will be left intact. They will rely less on their parents to be entertained and learn to be self motivated to create their own fun when bored.
I know this is starting to sound alarmist and perhaps overly dramatic but stay with me here. We have all seen toddlers who beg for the phone and tantrum if they can’t have it. Teens who are on it for a majority of their day. Especially during this pandemic and less things to do outside the home, many kids are spending countless hours on screens. And it’s hurting them.
This study in 2018 showed an association between higher levels of screen time and preschool children with:
- Higher likelihood to lose their temper
- Less likely to calm down when excited
- Less likely to switch tasks without anxiety or anger
- Lower self control (which includes perseverance, sitting still, completing simple tasks, and not becoming distracted
And teens with:
- Trouble staying calm
- Not finishing tasks
- Not being curious
- Arguing too much with caregivers
- Increased difficulty caring for
We have to remember that association does not equate causation. But doesn’t it now make complete sense why that would happen?
Spending time on screens destroys our children’s mindfulness.
(Did you know that several of the big names in Silicon Valley like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs avoided using the very tech they created with their own children? That should tell us something. Read more here.)
IT’S A CHOICE
The goal of this article is to inform you ahead of time what may be down the road should you choose to have your baby engage in screen time. I want you to be able to make an educated decision and CHOOSE what you want to do rather than have the choice made for you.
I want to emphasize that you absolutely have a choice here and that there are different ways this choice can play out. When it gets hard, you have to remember there is a goal to all of this: To preserve your baby’s mindfulness and future mental health.
Just remember, this is a goal and please do not expect perfection of yourself and those around you. It is to inform you and to help you set an intention, not to guilt you because your baby watched Baby Shark yesterday. Because we have all been in survival mode and that’s just how it is some days. But the more you are aware and strive toward that goal, the more likely you will get there.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY TO PRESERVE YOUR BABY’S MINDFULNESS
- Turn off the TV when your baby is awake
- Model mindfulness. Avoid using the phone when you are playing with your baby. Try to be present.
- Favor low stimulation toys such as blocks and books over screen time to entertain your baby
- Eat at the table together as a family and get in the habit of making meals a tech-free zone
- Talk to your baby. Make eye contact. Smile. Sing.
- Talk to other caregivers about why you are avoiding screen time with your baby and kindly request that they do the same
- If you choose to watch a show, wait until your baby is at least 18 months old, watch it together and make it interactive