An OT’s thoughts on limiting screen time
The first few years of a child’s life is a period of rapid brain development, critical for learning as well as a time where a child builds meaningful relationships and establishes healthy daily routines. A child goes through many developmental stages of cognitive growth, language development, physical development, and social emotional development, all of which are dependent on neural networks firing, creating and changing pathways throughout the brain. Thus a child’s capacity for learning is HIGH. As the infant continues to grow and develop, he/she learns what it means to be fed, burped, sleep, engage in reciprocal and meaningful interactions with their caregivers, cause and effect, and so much more. All of this learning happens because of a caregiver’s emotional and physical support. From birth, an infant relies on their caregivers for survival. Imagine taking away that intimate style of learning and teaching and replacing it with a screen instead or limiting it in lieu of a screen. Will this child be able to translate what they’re seeing on a screen to their caregiver? Maybe or maybe not.
Screens provide fast-paced visual and auditory stimulation that can be very exciting and/or overwhelming. How many times have I caught myself spending hours scrolling through Instagram/Facebook or watching endless hours of Netflix? Honestly, too many times. At the end of each of those times, I’m left with a headache, strained eyes, feeling fatigue and/or feeling like I haven’t accomplished much. Now imagine what an infant/toddler/young child must be feeling after spending hours on a screen but not being able to internally recognize all the things I just mentioned. Instead, they start seeking out this fast-paced, bright colored, and all the exciting things happening on the screen and hey, sometimes they even learn something new! But what is really happening internally that we’re not seeing? This child is simultaneously receiving high visual stimulation combined with high auditory stimulation, limited breath intake and output (oxygen is good for brain development!) and limited interactions with others around them which oftentimes results in difficulty in separating from this screen. We’ve seen it firsthand where we spend part of our therapy session helping a child regulate after having to transition off a screen they were using in the waiting room. We do this by empathizing with their feelings, matching our facial expressions and intonation with theirs, and then actively helping them problem solve on how to make their bodies feel better.
On top of the high stimulation, screens can limit a child’s praxis abilities; a process that includes coming up with an idea, making a plan, sequencing the steps, and following through till the end. A digital game on a touchscreen pad requires minimal effort (swipe of the finger) to complete. How many times in life can we just swipe a finger and a task is done for us (aside from turning on and off a light switch of course, ha!)? I wish I could swipe a finger and my blog post would be done for me but unfortunately no, I sat here and took the time to come up with what I wanted to say, hit “backspace” and “enter” a thousand times and then produced this. It takes time and effort to persevere through challenging tasks and by relying on prolonged screen time we’re teaching our kiddos that we can do a “swift and quick motion” to get the job done and that prolonged sedentary play time is OK. As occupational therapists, we’ve seen these kiddos in our gym spaces have difficulty with coming up with play ideas, following through these play ideas and having enough body strength and coordination to actually complete these play ideas. And don’t take it just from me! According to the American Association of Pediatrics, research has shown that face-to-face time with family, friends, and teachers plays a pivotal role in promoting children's learning and healthy development.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering “ok now REALLY how much screen time should my child get per day?”. If it were a “perfect” world I would say zero especially in the first three years of life. Ideally, I recommend parents to limit it as much as possible and when you need to get something done, it’s OK to use a screen to distract your child using your best judgement. I won’t negate the fact that there are lots of benefits to incorporating this new technology as well. Yes, it’s impressive when I see a 12 month old baby pick the correct shape on an educational app but as Mr. Rogers says “Play is the work of childhood”. Moderation is key here and remember to incorporate play, build meaningful memories, and strengthen those beautiful relationships!
A Foundations’ Parent Perspective:
“We all hear about screen time recommendations for children from doctors and books, but as parents life gets in the way and things like timed TV tend to get overlooked. Heck some of us are just in survival mode and letting our kids watch TV is a necessary part of getting through the day. Recently though, my 3.5 year old son started waking up around 5am and the first words out of his mouth were “I need my show”. He was also having major meltdowns every time I turned off the TV. He would ask every 5 minutes about watching shows. Honestly it’s so much easier to just give in and say “ok 5 more minutes of shows”. In reality though, we parents get distracted and those “5 more minutes” turn into an hour or more. So I decided that enough was enough, he was too dependent on TV. With no warning or discussion I cut out ALL screens. Not even a short clip on the phone. He was pretty hysterical for the first few days, and it was really tempting to give in, but then the tantrums eased up and the number of times he asked for TV lessened. I continued the NO Screen routine for 3 weeks and the crazy thing was, he actually became a happier kid. His mood improved, he was sleeping better and later, he was playing with all his toys and reading lots of books and hardly ever asking to watch TV. He was more cooperative and helped with chores. There was such a noticeable change in his behavior that teachers and friends asked what I had done to my kid. The few times he would ask for TV I made a point of just redirecting him to something else. Now that things have improved, I let him watch 30 min of TV once a day. When the show is finished I turn it off. No warning or discussion, just turn it off and let him know it’s time to play, or time for bed, etc. He gets up and transitions to the next activity with little to no pushback now. I’m honestly shocked that cutting out TV had such a dramatic change in his behavior and overall happiness. It’s worth a try if you are encountering some of the same issues. Good luck!”