5 Ways Screen Time Hinders Your Toddler’s Growth

Why Wise Parents of the Digital Age Promote Real World Experiences

Have you ever seen a toddler with a tablet? The tech is so intuitive, so rewarding that a two year old can make things happen just by swiping their finger. They feel absolute delight.

It looks like joy to me. But… What if time on screens blocks your toddler’s development?

Interactive Media is Designed to Grab Attention and Keep It

A screen is so compelling that a kid is unlikely to get bored and look for mischief or other trouble.

They kinda stay where you put them.

The technology is really handy to have, when a parent wants to put a meal on the table, or get a bathroom break… A kid’s app on a smartphone can:

  • distract a fussy toddler,
  • make waiting for the doctor tolerable,
  • stop a public meltdown or tantrum, saving all from public embarrassment, and
  • buy the adults more time during a restaurant meal.

… Among other minor miracles.

Awesome, right?
Oh man… It really hurts me to break this to you, but

Digital Media tends to Overload Young Brains: So… Introduce Screens Cautiously

Introduce Screen Media to toddlers with great care because:

  • Screens deliver artificially uber-intense stimulus, and
  • Young brains are highly responsive to it... but they can’t handle it.
    Immature brains don’t process the stimulus well.
  • They are vulnerable to over-stimulation, and even fight or flight, stress responses.

According to Dr Victoria Dunkley, and others, digital media can negatively affect:

  • sleep,
  • ability to pay attention,
  • self control (for example: self-soothing and impulse control), and
  • behavior.

Interactive media is habit forming and fun. At every age we chase it rather than other kinds of activity, because persuasive design manipulates our behavior… It captures everyone, including tots.

For toddlers, screen time displaces
essential developmental tasks that occur during active play.

In this post, I’ll explain:

  1. The growing consensus about screen limits and healthy media use for kids.
  2. Why children aged 2 to 5 years (and beyond…), need active play and face to face interaction to learn and grow.
  3. How you can protect and promote the kinds of play your child needs.
  4. Why it is important for parents to manage how their young children use digital screens, …what boundaries they will set around addictive technologies to safeguard their children’s development.

A Family Media Game Plan can simplify the challenge.

An Emerging Consensus about Healthy Media Habits for Children

American Academy of Pediatrics Screen Time Guidelines, November 2017

The professional association of pediatricians had a task force study the available research about digital media and children from 2015 to 2017.

The AAP Media Use Guidelines recommend three priorities.

Parents should ensure the essential needs of a child:

  • Sleep, (a minimum number in 24 hours, according to age)
  • A minimum hour of physical activity daily, preferably outdoors, and
  • Daily person to person social interaction,
    These should happen before a child is allowed time on screens, and
AAP Recommended Screen Limits for digital entertainment, by age group.
  • No screens before age 2 years
  • 1 hour/day or less for children aged 2-5; of quality content co-viewed with a caregiver,
  • Max 2 hours /day over age 6, if for entertainment purposes.

The guidelines were based on various negative consequences of heavy media consumption reported in large, peer-reviewed studies with sound research designs.

AAP and the EU 5 Rights organization don’t talk about screen time limits as much in 2019, … but advocate purposeful use of media over mindless escape or entertainment.

World Health Organization Guidelines for 24 Hour Activity, released April 2019

The WHO paper, “Guidelines for Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior and Sleep, for Children under 5 Years of Age”, essentially agrees with the AAP, but recommends more physical activity.

Based on a review of worldwide research, written for policy makers and legislators, the WHO specifically discusses screen time under sedentary behaviors.

For toddlers aged 2 to 5 years, WHO specifies:

  • Physical Activity: A Minimum 180 minutes of physical activity over 24 hours. (60 minutes of moderate intensity (Warm and flushed), or higher), More is better;
  • Less Sedentary Behavior: No more than 1 hour a day sedentary on screen, or restrained in a stroller, papoose wrap, or sitting. Less is better. Storytelling with a caregiver is advised.
  • Sleep: 11 to 14 hrs daily, of good quality sleep for 1 to 2 year olds, including naps; 10 to 13 hrs in 24 for kids 2- 5 yrs.

Notice the Emphasis on Physical Activity and Social Interaction

Why do you suppose physical activity is emphasized? Or Social Interaction? The doctors aren’t out of touch or living on a different planet. They may be experts, but they care about children doing well.

The emphasis on life experience points out how toddlers learn best… and meet developmental milestones. The single most important thing a toddler can do is…

PLAY!  Then play some more…

Toddlers need to explore the world with their whole body.

Screen Time Blocks a Toddler from:
#1 Active Play

Whether TV or hand held, when a little kid is using a screen they are NOT:

  • Moving their body enough to jump and run, or
  • Squish things, splashing, digging, building towers to knock them down, or
  • Using a tool like a hammer… or a crayon, or
  • Discovering bugs, friendship, make-believe dress up, or
  • The joy of creation, like sculpting shapes, or painting.

We already know kids are super responsive to digital media. They like it a lot! But… screens hinder brain development that happens during active play, (experiential learning), that they need more.

#1 TIP: What Parents can do to Protect ACTIVE PLAY,
…  and promote experiential learning:

Parents who recognize two things will meet this challenge with ease. They understand:

The Primary Focus of the Parent Role

Parents need to be:

  • Present and aware.
  • Engaged with the parenting task.
  • Not distracted.

A person who is caught up with their phone is not present with their child to actively parent them.

So when  you are with your child, try setting your device on airplane mode, or in another room.

(If you are responsible to be always available at work, or for other children at school, enable notification from only those contacts.)

Give yourself props if you can lean in to the childcare task, loosen up, and play

The Single Minded Mission of a Toddler

A toddler’s job is to explore the world and everything in it… to figure it out.

And I bet you sometimes thought the mission of a toddler is to create sticky messes and drain your energy!

The parent who can see themselves as a discovery partner in their child’s great, active adventure is going to do a super job … and have a lot of fun as well.

Parenting is important business, but not necessarily serious… Have fun being the parent you want to be, and enjoy the journey. The day comes when you miss sticky messes.

ACT therapy teaches this…  Show Up, Loosen Up, Step Up. Psychologically flexible parenting is often playful.

If you have childcare while you work, choose someone who does activities with different materials, visits places, provides new experiences, and toddler mind-food that is not overstimulating like screens.

Screen Time Blocks a Toddler from:
#2 Learning Language well

This surprised me. but I have seen two studies, and a report from educators, that all say the same thing. Kiddos who start school with a screen habit have

This is worrisome… because you need vocabulary to think. Children who have large vocabularies score higher on intelligence testing. It is a chicken and egg thing where each supports the other.

Language is learned primarily during social interaction, face to face:

  • Conversation,
  • Story telling,
  • In person, read-a-loud storybooks, and children’s literature.

A child’s brain learns new languages easily. Screen based programs can teach kids Chinese, for example. Apparently they work if there is face to face interaction to reinforce the lessons, … but learners who only have the screen lesson do not retain vocabulary.

This fact tells us something about screens for education. Stimulation and learning are not the same thing. Teachers make a difference.

#2 TIP: What Parents can do to Protect LANGUAGE development:

This one is easy.

Activities that will help your child gain good language skills:

  • Have conversations with your child often.
  • Encourage your child to talk, by asking and listening
  • Read a loud… books with pages, for the interpersonal connection, and
  • Bring content seen on screens (internet and TV, <1 hr / day co-viewed), into the real world context, … to reinforce the learning with interaction.

Screen Time Blocks a Toddler from:
#3 Developing Specific Motor Skills

Confirming the need for active play, here we are talking about:

  • Big muscle movement and coordination, and
  • Fine motor movement and dexterity.
Case Study

One case in the UK appeared in a peer reviewed journal…
A child arrived at school needing six months of remedial occupational therapy. His play was so much on interactive screens that his hand muscles were too weak to use a pencil.

Occupational therapists in the US have seen the same thing.

An OT who was quoted in the article, said that her colleagues thought the problem could be traced back to lack of infant “tummy time.”

Too Much Screen, … or not enough Tummy Time, or both- It doesn’t matter.

Toddlers need active play to develop and practice motor skills.

#3 TIP: What Parents can do to Protect MOTOR SKILL DEVELOPMENT:

Physical activity for little kids was easier before electronics. Think Balls, Balloons, Bubbles and Blocks. Tricycles and playground equipment… Markers and paper. Muscles training the brain through experiential learning.

Choose toys that allow practice of physical developmental milestones… to lay the foundation for future skill sets.

Screen Time Blocks a Toddler from:
#4 Developing Specific Social Skills

Social skills like sharing, taking turns, fair play, empathy and conflict resolution, are learned in the space between children who are face to face… not on screens.

#4 TIP: What Parents can do to Ensure that SOCIAL SKILLS develop.

You will help your child if you:

  • Provide opportunities for face to face play with other children,
  • Model social interaction with other people, … co-operation and helpfulness,
  • Teach consideration of other’s feelings, … nurture empathy by identifying feelings.

Screen Time Blocks a Toddler from:
#5 Developing Emotional Self Control

Toddlers who are given a digital device when they are having a tantrum or upset are not learning how to manage difficult emotions. The AAP warns parents against using a digital device as an electronic pacifier because doing so creates more problems than it solves…

This is important.

Be careful HOW you use devices. If you use the device as a reward, or a pacifier, or a way to avoid boredom… you’re priming your kid to have an overuse problem with digital devices. Training them toward an addictive habit.

Children need to develop skill within themselves… for instance, how to self-soothe when they are upset. They need to be able to settle themselves for sleep. These are examples of emotional regulation, an essential life skill.

#5 TIP: What Parents can do to Encourage Emotional SELF REGULATION,

Self soothing skills are learned initially at bedtime, (if the child is not over-stimulated).  Parents can help their children become more calm by soothing them and modelling calmness during a behavioral storm.

Digital Age brings New Challenges for Parents of Toddlers

Big tech wants to sell you the idea that digital media can make parenting easier. They want you to believe that giving your child access to screens will prepare them for their future… help them learn, give them an advantage.

Beware the Big Lie

It is a lie. Technology has not changed the way that children develop. The way neural pathways are laid down in the brain when children practice new things… THAT process is unchanged. Your child learns best in all the ways I have shared in this post.

But… Kids love screens soo much, how can playing on them possibly hurt?

Britain and the EU are taking steps to treat persuasive technology as a public health issue.

Addictive apps and devices are not harmless. Until governments step in with regulation (faint hope in North America), YOU are the one who has to protect your child from too much screen.

The Importance of a Family Media Game Plan

A Family Media Agreement adopted early can help parents be present and aware.  A media plan also:

  • Makes screens a conscious choice (to a greater extent).
  • Reduces conflict over screen use as kids grow older because the subject would be discussed routinely.
  • Makes expectations understood and consequences of rule breaking known,
  • Holds everyone in the family accountable, even parents AWOP (absent while on the phone).

Your family’s most effective defense against persuasive design and the harms of the attention economy, is the mindful awareness and proactive resistance that a family media game plan provides.


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.