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Screen Time & Young Children

In our modern world, technology, social media, and screen time is being used more than ever. Every corner we turn there are toddlers on the iPad watching YouTube, parents on their smart phones catching up with the world news, and teens snapping selfies on snapchat. There is no doubt that social media effects humans from birth to adulthood; however, this post will focus specifically on how screen time effects younger children.

Between birth and age 3, the brain is in the critical period, meaning that the brain is developing rapidly and is extremely sensitive to the environment and its surroundings. During the critical period, the changes that happen are a permanent foundation for later brain development. During the first three years, the child brain needs a significant amount of human interaction, and specific stimuli from the outside environment. When children have the distraction and over-consumption of media and screen time, they lack the human and environmental interactions that are essential for healthy development. Too much screen time and not enough time gaining experiences from the real-world result in long-term developmental delays for children. Below is a list of some of the effects and developmental delays that screen time has on young children:

  • Delay in language development: One study found that toddlers who watched more videos said fewer words, and the more video time they watched, they said less words.

  • Delay in expressive speech and speech delays: Expressive speech delay is a broad diagnosis meaning that a child is having difficulty using language in some way, and may have difficulty putting together words to form sentences, using correct vocabulary words, and/ or may have difficulty sequencing information together in a logical matter. One study conducted by pediatrician and scientist, Catherine Birken, found that children who spend more time with hand held screens were more likely to exhibit significant delay in expressive speech. Specifically, every 30 minutes spent on hand held screen time in kids 2 or younger was linked to a 49% increased risk in expressive speech delay.

  • Reduced amount and quality parent-child interaction and distraction from play: While iPads and other screens have e-books and other educational games, this takes away the opportunity for critical child and parent bonding. E-books do have benefits; however, parents tend to use fewer reading strategies during these interactions and the sound effects and animations can interfere with story comprehension and event sequencing in younger children when compared to paperback books.

  • Difficulty making friends and socializing: The Frontal Lobe is the part of our brain that is responsible for understanding and comprehending social interactions. The Frontal Lobe develops rapidly during the first 3 years of life, and is contingent on genuine, real, human interaction. If a child spends many hours during the first 3 years on screens, their ability to connect with others and develop meaningful relationships may be severely impaired.

  • Sleep patterns: Increased use of screen time and TV watching has been linked to poor sleep habits and sleep disturbances in children.


  • Set limits and boundaries. The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends that infants and toddlers under 2 years should have no screen time at all, and recommend that kids ages 2-5 should have a very limited screen time, and no more than one hour a day. For many children, it may be helpful to use screen time as a reward for a desired behavior (rather than allowing it because as a caregiver, you need a break).

  • Interact with your child every opportunity you can…whether it is bath time, in the car, or on the playground. Interaction is the best way to enrich language development in your child.

  • Instead of having your child listen to an e-book, read a real book with your child. This allows you to not only spend quality time with your child, but also enhances language development, encourages empathy, and provides the opportunity to relate lessons to real life experiences.

  • When your child is watching a video or show, make sure it is a high-quality program and developmentally-appropriate. The characteristics and content of the show are so important.

  • Watch the video with your child and talk with them throughout the program. Ask them questions during the show to encourage empathy and emotional recognition, such as “why do you think the bear looks so sad?” or, “by the look on the bears face, how do you think he feels right now?” Try to make connections with the show to your child’s every day experiences.

  • Create media free zones, such as the bedroom or the dinner table.

  • Model appropriate screen time usage and limit your own use of screen time around your children…kids learn so much from observing you! This will also help you to be fully-present and engaged when you are with your child.

While there still is always room for more research to be done to understand the full impact of screen time on children, researchers are certain that there are no benefits and only risks associated with screen time and children under the age of two. For optimal development, children need quality family time and active play time to cultivate essential skills such as language development, speech development, social skills, self-regulation, and creative thinking.

References and Research contributing to this post:

  1. Zimmerman, F. J., Christakis, D. A. & Meltzoff, A. N. (2007). Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years. The Journal of Pediatrics, 151, 364-368.




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