3 Reasons to Limit Digital Screen Time for Babies

Happy Infant and mom face to face

The New Challenges of Parenting when Digital Media is Everywhere.

Is there a new baby in your arms, or in your future?

Oh my… I am so happy for you! Parenthood is interesting, exhausting, fun, scary, entertaining … and did I say exhausting? For most of us, the rewards of parenting far outweigh any costs.

Your child will grow up in a world different from the one you know and quite a bit different from the pre-digital world. You want to give them the best chance you can, but it is really hard to know what that is.

Competing interests are trying to influence parents both toward and away from technology for their kids.

The amount of information is overwhelming. Some is noise, some is valid. Some is funded by big tech. A lot of people are selling something. How can you tell what is helpful … or accurate?

Do we know anything for sure?

Well, … Yes. We do.

Emerging Understanding of the Effects of Media Use on Kids 

The good news is that unlike a couple years ago when all things tech related were assumed to be beneficial, today we understand that caution is needed when introducing children to technology.

Not all technology is good for kids.

Navigating emerging issues about tech use is a new challenge for parents, (when digital media is everywhere, and some of it is harmful to kids).

Learn WHY the American Academy of Pediatrics wants Screen Limits for Very Young Children

This post examines the importance and reasons behind the US Academy of Pediatrics Screen Limit Guidelines for children under the age of two. You will learn:

  • An explanation why the AAP made the recommendations they did.
  • What screen limit best practice looks like at the earliest stages of child development.
  • Suggestions how to stay connected and also follow AAP guidelines… while tuning in to your little one.
  • How to establish ground rules for media consumption in your family. There are detrimental effects to screen use that you probably want to avoid.

The post is the first in a series. Later posts will look at parenting best practice for managing screen time over later stages of child development.

Why Pay Attention to the Role of Digital Media in Your Family?

Thinking this through now will make your task as parents easier. Seriously. It is much easier to prevent a screen addition problem than fix one. Family rules supporting healthy media use make a difference.

The ground rules you adopt now will set the stage for healthy media consumption as your kids grow… helping you and them, well into your family’s future.

Now is the time to figure out what you want for your family. You can help your child’s potential be fully realized, by:

  • introducing the best aspects of tech at the right time in your child’s growth, while
  • limiting its harmful influences, like over-stimulation and compulsive use.

You are the parents who, soon enough, will guide your children around safe use of virtual reality technology… (But that is a topic for another day.)

Recognizing Screen Time as a Parental Life Line

When your child is brand new, parents’ ability to connect with the outside world over the internet can be really helpful.

  • You can find advice, information, support and encouragement.
  • You’ll feel less isolated while recovering from childbirth, both mother and partner.
  • Support within parent groups can help you put baby behaviors in perspective, and manage new-parent panic.
  • There is a place to share the experience, both the cuteness and the eewww factor.

Of course, the internet can be an instrument of torture, if you use it to reinforce worry and fears. Anxiety is a normal, universal part of being a parent.

  • Aim for an open, curious, flexible approach to the experience.
  • Hold the inevitable worry, fear and self criticism very lightly … so you don’t get tied in a knot or stuck.
  • Practice being loose enough to play with your child. Give yourself permission to be silly. Shared fun strengthens family bonds… You’ll find ideas for family fun online.

With all this in mind, you might be shocked to learn that:

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that
children under age two spend NO time with digital screens.

AAP Screen Limits are Strict for Children under Age Two

NO Digital Screen for Babies and Tots under Two?

What? … NONE?   Are you kidding?

How is that going to work? OMG… I just can’t do that…

Hold on.

There are reasons that actually make good sense.
You can make the recommendations work in a way that is good for both you and your baby.

Reasons to Limit Screen Exposure for Babies

Reason #1: An Infant’s Profound Need for Attentive Care:

Babies require responsive care for survival.

They tune in to the caregiver and absolutely need eye-contact and ongoing physical, and emotional interaction with the primary care person(s).

This is the foundation for attachment, security that enables exploration, trust, confidence… emotional health.

Video of moms and babies in research labs show that just watching TV reduces interaction between parents and baby.

Digital Media Distraction

Smartphones capture even more of the caregiver’s attention away from the baby. Time spent online can pass unnoticed… It is called distracted parenting, … the parent’s addictive screen is the problem.

When a screen in around, it is Way Too Easy to miss the little things babies do to to get a response from you… (gurgles, searching your face, smiles, following your movements).

The Importance of “Tuning In” to your baby

For a very short, precious, period of time,
YOU are your child’s world.

Children do best when the attention they get, from adults who love them, is “emotionally resonant”…  You’re tuned in to each other, like dance partners.

Attachment is a process crucial to infant development.
For this reason, the AAP made its recommendation “NO screens”, to point out:

  • babies get every need met during face to face interaction with caregivers, and
  • they get nothing of value from digital screens.

Pediatricians understand that real life is seldom ideal. Infants are going to be exposed to screens.

But, by making the recommendation, I believe the AAP is gently telling us that screen distracted parents, who are not available to an infant, are detrimental to child development.

This is as much part of the problem with digital media as giving babies access to touchscreens that are too stimulating.

Reason #2: High Intensity Stimulation is Built into Commercial Media

We don’t usually notice how vibrant the sights and sounds of digital media have become. Have you watched an old timey TV show lately… You know, one that was filmed when VHS was a thing? The colors seem faded, the action might as well be going backward…

Today’s media is more intense than it used to be. Adrenaline and dopamine sell product. Child psychiatrists like Dr. Victoria Dunckley are reporting that:

  • Children appear more sensitive and responsive to digital stimulus than adults.
  • A child’s immature brain is less able to process stimulus overload.
  • In older children, chronic over-stimulation leads to problems with emotional self-regulation, attention, impulse control, sleep, and disruptive behavior.
  • The younger the child, the more vulnerable they may be to damaging effects of artificially intense dopamine triggers in the brain.

The biggest unanswered question to me is: How will persuasive design affect brain development in childhood?

We know how powerful persuasive design is to manipulate behavior in adults…

We know that changes in the brain are visible on the fMRI scans of heavy media users…
(Changes reverse if overuse stops.)

We know youngsters are highly responsive to persuasively designed apps.

We do not know how persuasive designed touch screens might change the rapidly developing brains of children.

In Europe, legislators are preparing regulations to protect children from persuasive design in technology, following the report: Disrupted Childhood: The Cost of Persuasive Design.

Over-stimulation and Babies

The AAP warns parents to protect their children from over-stimulation. In 2017, they appeared to be referring to disturbing, or age inappropriate emotional content. AAP recommends programming that is not over-stimulating, like Sesame Street, for kids over age 2.

In Europe, they are taking steps to protect children from over-stimulation, and the addictive properties built in to devices and apps by persuasive design.

In babies, over-stimulation may look like:

  • difficulty settling or self-soothing,
  • sleep issues,
  • restlessness,
  • fussiness
  • signs of discomfort with a cause you can’t find…

An infant who is overstimulated usually needs a caregiver’s help to settle… soothing touch and voice, removing sources of stimulation, like light, sounds, action around them, energetic interaction.

For daytime sleep, my son needed me to put a receiving blanket over both our heads.

Related: When Kids Use Screens Too Much… What’s the Problem? Help for Parents.

Reason #3 Screen Use Can Interfere with Infant Learning

Your baby is born in high intensity training mode. You can’t see them learning until a change shows in their behavior. In the first year alone, babies learn:

  • how to send and respond to social cues… and who cares about them,
  • speech and language,
  • motor development, from holding up their head to walking (gross motor), and from finding their hand to pinching, (fine motor) skills.

It is intense. Their brain doubles in size in the year.  They learn through all their senses by doing new things… Starting with their head and neck… (I mean… who knew?)

The encouragement of an attentive caregiver boosts the process.

Research on babies and screens.

Babies are so responsive to screens that you would think there is a benefit to them.

Nope.

It turns out that many individual research studies are showing the same thing. Time on interactive screens is wasted when the children are under about 18 months. For example:

  • Little ones learn foreign language words when interacting with a native speaking caregiver, but have no retention of words introduced by a person, program, or story delivered on a screen.
  • Children under two who have access to touchscreen tech have poorer language skills and vocabulary than children who have no exposure to hand held screens.

Because:

1.) screens are so engaging;

2.) they are over-stimulating; and

3.) time spent on touch screens does not contribute to the child’s learning, …

It is wise for parents to limit their baby’s exposure to digital screens.

Parenting Best Practice: Managing Screen Exposure for Children under Age Two.

Take Care of Yourself:

Parental well being includes networks of other parents and other online resources.

It is best practice to access these during times when your child is napping, interacting with other children, or maybe getting tummy time exploring how their body works.

Begin to Develop a Family Digital Media Game Plan 

If you create a routine that supports family interaction with:

  • screen free meals and
  • a digital curfew for everybody,

it won’t matter if occasionally you use a screen to keep a kid occupied while you catch a break, visit the bathroom, or prepare supper.

Priority #1: Be Present (not distracted), when providing direct care:

Go Online On Purpose… and then Deliberately Put the Device Down

I recommend that parents develop the habit of deliberately putting down their phone or tablet when young children are in the room.

Screen free mealtimes are important, and during the rituals leading to bedtime or naps. TV screens should also be off during these times when family connections are being nurtured .

There is strong evidence that a TV screen running in the background interferes with parent-child interaction… and slows language development in the little one.

Learn Present Moment Awareness of your Habit

It is important to practice awareness. There is some effort involved in doing this, especially if you use your phone for social media. There are two parts to the new habit:

1.) Create a grounding exercise you do in the moment before you engage with your baby. You might snap an elastic band on your wrist and focus on the sensation. This will bring you into the present moment immediately. (It is OK if you provide infant care while half asleep from time to time.)

2.) Deliberately examine your digital media use, to become fully aware of when you use screens and why.

I don’t mean for you to guilt or beat up on yourself… Don’t. Be kind to yourself. Mindfulness is non judgmental.

4 Steps to UnHook from the Phone can help.

When children are older, you can relax the habit a a little bit, especially if you have built screen-free time for interaction into your routine. Then, if you are momentarily using a device, you need only put the phone down immediately whenever a child seeks your attention.

Values-grounded Action

You can train yourself to give your children priority attention, on purpose, rather than attending to your phone. If you can make that choice a habit, … you’ll meet their needs and also model an important value to your children; that real people are valued above social media contacts.

Bonus of Training Yourself to be Present

Being Present with your child happens when you have trained yourself how to do mindfulness with a Present Moment Awareness grounding exercise. I especially like The 5 Senses exercise.

When you are present in your own body, … do 5 Senses again and focus on your baby. Notice things like:

  • The brightness of the eye,
  • Expressions of the face,
  • How (s)he smells,
  • Changes… growth, muscle control, alertness.

Paying attention to a rewarding experience, the best that life offers, is called Savoring. The time as an infant passes so quickly. It is a good thing to make a point of noticing and savoring as much of the experience as you can.

Experiment with these ideas and tell us what works for you and how you can adapt these suggestions to your situation, in the comments below. We can all help each other.

Bottom Line?

Mindful Media Use and Mindful Attention to Baby = WIN

  1. Your baby is #1 priority for your attention.
  2. Practice mindfulness by doing exercises and creating a routine that supports the practice.
  3. Put away screens on purpose. Attend your child on purpose. Repeat until it is a new habit and routine.
  4. Treat yourself with kindness, and remember mindfulness is being present without judgement.

Infant development depends on responsive care. Take care tha your phone gets your attention when you babe is sleeping.

 

 

 

About the Author

Peggy McLauchlan is a counsellor, ACT therapist, and personal development coach in Ontario, Canada. She has a special interest in positive psychology practices applied to problems with modern digital technology, like smartphone addiction and problematic internet use.

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