by Anya Dunham, PhD
Is screen time bad for babies? Are there any positives? Let’s look at scientific studies to find out.
(This article is based on a chapter in my book, Baby Ecology.)
Today’s homes have many screens: TVs, computers, tablets, and smart phones. When is a good time for children to begin using them?
How many families you know follow these recommendations fully?
Screen time can be a loaded and sensitive topic. I dove into peer-reviewed scientific studies to find out what the “no screen time for baby” advice is based on. I hope this article helps you make a decision that is best for your family.
In the 1970s, most children began watching TV regularly around 4 years old.1 Then, in the 1990s, baby-directed videos and television programs like the Baby Einstein series and Teletubbies began to appear. Most were marketed as educational tools to promote brain development and cognitive skills. And by the early 2000s, the average age children began watching television became 4 months old. At 3 months, 40% of babies were already regular viewers; by 2 years, almost all babies were.1 In 2005, every fifth child under 2 years old in the United States had a TV set in their bedroom.2
In a large survey completed in 2006, parents shared their reasons for letting babies and young toddlers watch television, DVDs, or videos. Most believed the programs were educational and good for their child’s developing brain, and that viewing was enjoyable and relaxing.1
Unfortunately, neither is true. Researchers have been actively looking into the effects of television and video exposure on babies and young children since the early 1990s, and at this point science has given us some solid answers. Let’s take a look at the TV equation.
There are two main negatives that are correlated with — and may be caused by — watching TV:
As babies grow, their attention gradually develops from orienting response toward executive attention, otherwise known as focus: they begin selecting specific information from sensory input.8 Researchers believe that excessive television viewing may disrupt this natural process of attention development.
The pacing of television shows, even those designed for babies, is extremely rapid compared to real life. Sensory overstimulation may condition children’s developing brains to expect this level of stimulation and intensity in everyday lives.
Some studies have found an association between very early exposure to television and attention problems. For example, children who watched 2 hours of television a day before age three had a 20 percent greater chance of attention problems in elementary school, compared to those who did not watch television as babies and toddlers; watching faster-paced shows was more strongly associated with subsequent attention problems.9
There are several other negatives. These are not directly caused by television, but stem from what babies are not doing or getting during the time they are immersed in screens.
These are, essentially, lost opportunities. Are they significant? They can be, depending on how much time babies spend watching. According to a large survey, 3-month-olds on average watch about an hour each day.1 This might not seem like much. But babies of this age sleep for 16 or more hours per day and spend another 3 or so hours feeding and being changed and dressed. So screen time takes up almost a quarter of their awake time. Being in a screen-free environment gives babies more opportunities for connecting, building strength, exploring, and learning.
What about the educational benefits claimed by the producers? The problem is, even if a show’s content can be considered educational, babies are not developmentally ready to understand it. Watching screens is a demanding cognitive activity, one that requires special forms of attention, perception, and comprehension.4 Babies develop these skills through exploring, connecting, and playing in the real world, not by watching screens.
Some programs claim to teach babies languages. The Baby Einstein series was inspired by the finding that young babies are sensitive to phonetic contrasts of any language, but at around 6 to 9 months they begin to gradually lose this generalist sensitivity: their brains focus on the language they hear most. So Baby Einstein videos exposed babies to the sounds of many languages and were supposed to help them remain sensitive to many phonetic contrasts, to facilitate later language learning. However, videos like Baby Einstein don’t work. A number of studies have now shown that babies learn much better from real people and real-life events than video — and that this “video deficit” phenomenon holds true until the child is 2 to 3 years old, and likely beyond.3,4,12 In 2009, Disney offered refunds on Baby Einstein videos because its claims of learning benefits were unsupported. That being said, a plethora of “educational” videos and apps for babies have been developed since.
Some media content producers claim that their goal is to promote child-parent interaction. However, studies show that most parents do not watch television with their babies or toddlers.1 (Understandably so – they are probably trying to catch a break.) And even when babies and their parents are watching together, they are probably interacting less than if they played with blocks, looked at a book, or went about daily activities together.
Overall, statements by television and video producers that their products are beneficial for babies are not supported by evidence. Most or all television and video content should not be marketed as educational or even developmentally appropriate for babies and toddlers. Yet there still appears to be a lack of regulation regarding such marketing claims.11
Consider creating an enclosed, 100% safe play area (or “yes space”) where your baby can play, move, and explore freely, with you or on their own. Read more about this concept and how we created ours here.
Begin shifting towards baby-led feeding, where you set up a nurturing feeding environment and provide nutritious foods at regular times and your baby decides how much of each food to eat and whether to eat it at all – without coercion or distractions. Find out more here.
Yes, screens (and electronic toys) can teach your baby how to press and swipe. But if you think about it, these tasks are very simple, can be learned any time in life, and are rather meaningless on their own. To use electronic devices in a meaningful way, one must first understand how the real world works outside of the screen. For example, as your baby plays with a toy drum or a spoon and a plastic container, she will learn that banging objects together makes a sound. She will also learn that the sound varies depending on how soft the object is and how hard she hits it, and that hitting water makes a splash; she will be using all her senses. If she’s curious about sounds, she’ll keep experimenting, which will advance her strength, fine motor skills, and sensory integration, and give her a sense of mastery. She won’t learn any of that from simply pressing a button or swiping on a smartphone to produce a sound.
So is screen time bad for babies? Science does not conclusively tell us watching screens directly causes problems, but it does suggest a number of negatives watching screens is associated with.
And it does not show any positives.
Technology changes rapidly, but the biology of early childhood development remains the same. Of the 5 things babies need most for brain development – sound sleep, avoiding overstimulation, predictable environment, interactions with supportive adults, and free exploration – screens provide none.
1. Zimmerman FJ, Christakis DA, Meltzoff AN (2007) Television and DVD/video viewing in children younger than 2 years. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 161(5): 473-479
2. Vandewater EA et al (2007) Digital childhood: electronic media and technology use among infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Pediatrics 119(5): e1006-e1015
3. Anderson DR, Pempek TA (2005) Television and very young children. American Behavioral Scientist 48(5): 505-522
4. Anderson DR, Hanson KG (2010) From blooming, buzzing confusion to media literacy: the early development of television viewing. Developmental Review 30(2): 239-255
5. Thompson DA, Christakis DA (2005) The association between television viewing and irregular sleep schedules among children less than 3 years of age. Pediatrics 116(4): 851-856
6. Cespedes EM et al (2014) Television viewing, bedroom television, and sleep duration from infancy to mid-childhood. Pediatrics 133(5): e1163-e1171
7. Dawson D, Encel N (1993) Melatonin and sleep in humans. Journal of Pineal Research 15(1): 1-12
8. Posner MI, Rothbart MK, Voelker P (2016) Developing brain networks of attention. Current Opinion in Pediatrics 28(6): 720-724
9. Christakis DA et al (2004) Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics 113(4): 708-713
10. Christakis DA et al (2018) How early media exposure may affect cognitive function: a review of results from observations in humans and experiments in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(40): 9851-9858
11. Haughton C, Aiken M, Cheevers C (2015) Cyber babies: the impact of emerging technology on the developing infant. Psychology 5(9): 504-518
12. Kuhl PK, Tsao F-M, Liu H-M (2003) Foreign-language experience in infancy: effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100(15): 9096-9101
13. Doige N (2007) The brain that changes itself. Viking, New York, NY, USA
Share this article: