Infant & Toddler Screen Time: Take Notice Now, Regret Less Later
There has been a lot of buzz about screen time for little ones since CNN released an article in January 2023 that boldly proclaimed, “Your child’s academic success may start with their screen time as infants”. This is one of many news sources that picked up the new study released in January by JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Pediatrics. This isn’t new news, with Virtual Autism being well studied for years now by Dr. Victoria Dunkley and others. But such headlines make parents uneasy, especially if they, like many, allowed their children to watch over the daily recommended amount of screen time during those long Spring and Summer months in 2020 and continue the practice today. Although the AAP guidelines are no screen time other than video calls before 18-24 months, and an hour or less a day from 2-5 years, these guidelines have actually not been updated in years since the progression of highly stimulating cartoon design and other addictive platforms. Best practices now point to less or none is best while their brains are rapidly developing until age 7, and moving away from “daily time” after 7 to prevent buildup of daily time and addictions.
But could those seemingly innocuous choices of putting your child in front of a screen to cook dinner REALLY wreak havoc on their future academic performance? Have you stolen the Ivy League from your kids because you let them watch too much Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood?
Let’s take a look at the study, away from any sensationalist or click-baity headlines, and see what JAMA Pediatrics says on the issue.
If you ran across the originally titled JAMA article, you wouldn’t be too inclined to click and read more. It’s titled: “Associations Between Infant Screen Use, Electroencephalography Markers, and Cognitive Outcomes”. That’s a far cry from “your child’s future academic performance depends on the amount of time they spent with Blippi last year”. This should remind us that the headlines we read are always interpretations of the articles we read, they are not results produced in the studies themselves. When reading about new studies, especially when they seem frightening or controversial, it always serves us well to go directly to the sources being cited for the best understanding.
That being said, the article does make some pretty concerning claims when it comes to young children and screen time supported by many different studies worldwide. So we will take a closer look at what this study found and why we should take notice.
What the Study Looked At
Without becoming too technical, let’s explore what this study did to collect data. The study looked at children from Growing Up in Singapore Toward Healthy Outcomes (GUSTO) and their mothers. The mothers were enrolled in the study while pregnant, and then their children had their neurodevelopment (which refers to how the brain is making connections and learning) assessed at 1 year, had an Electroencephalography (EEG) performed at 18 months, and had their neurodevelopment assessed again at 9 years old (Law, et al.).
In order to fully understand this study, we need to understand Electroencephalography markers and how they relate to this study. An EEG looks at brain waves and activity, and translates them to a graph on a computer which a doctor can look at and interpret. According to the author of JAMA’s study, looking at EEG data helps researchers assess the brain’s mechanisms of attention and executive function (Law, et al.). Executive function is responsible for planning ahead, paying attention and impulse control. While we can observe a child’s external behavior in a lab, looking at the EEG data allows researchers to ‘see’ how the brain is performing. It’s easy to see how executive function would have a big impact on a child’s ability to perform well in academic settings, so the researchers looked specifically at the parts of the brain responsible for executive function.
What the Study Found
Now that we understand a little bit about what the study looked at, let’s look at the results.
First, the researchers found that there was indeed a correlation between more screen time at one year old and attention and executive functioning at age 9. Not only was there an association, but for every added hour of screen time children actually performed worse in executive function tasks (Law, et al.). Secondly, the researchers saw a correlation between screen time and observable brain activity related to poorer attention and executive function. “In short, increased screen time in infancy is associated with impairments in cognitive processes critical for health, academic achievement, and future work success” (Law, et al.). This means that the impact of screens was doubly observable – both in children’s behavior and in the structure and behavior of their brains.
The authors of the study were careful, however, to leave this disclaimer: “The findings from this cohort study do not prove causation. Screen time likely represents a measurable contextual characteristic of a family or a proxy for the quality of parent-child interaction” (Law, et al.). So while the results of this study are stark and concerning, they ultimately cannot prove to us that the screen time caused the changes in children’s behavior and brain function. Instead, the authors believe that screen time is an indication of family culture as a whole that impacts brain development.
This should lead us to ask ourselves, what kind of family culture am I creating in my home? How do our values surrounding screen time reflect our family values?
What Screen Time Reveals About What We Value
While this particular study cannot prove causation, we have no reason to dismiss screen time as unproblematic. Unfortunately, what’s indicated by the authors of this study (although not explicitly spoken) is that a family culture with excessive screen time can reflect a deficit in the quality of child-parent relationships and interactions.
We live in both a sanitized and sedentary culture. Much of the technology and design that goes into our homes is put there with the explicit intention of maintaining cleanliness (i.e. dishwashers, air fresheners) or to make our lives more convenient (i.e. voice activation, self-running vacuums). Ease and simplicity are the tenets of such technologies.
How do children fit into such a culture? Sadly for young children, their very biology and neurology depends on them working against these cultural values. Children depend on exploring their environment to grow and develop. They depend on real-time feedback from adults while they touch, experiment, and discover. These biologically hardwired drives will inevitably create both mess and movement. The one year old who knocks the cup of milk off the table is most often responding to a biological drive to discover what happens, to experience gravity, not trying to frustrate or disobey their parents.
In order to control their environment and maintain homeostasis parents often resort to placing children in front of screens – ipads, televisions, video game systems, or phones – to gain a few hours of calm. Keeping children still helps them fit more easily into our sedentary and sanitized world. This leads to several things: 1) less movement for both children and adults, 2) less meaningful face-to-face time between children and adults, and 3) less opportunity for novelty and spontaneity outside of screen time. The stark reality and misfortune of this arrangement is that still, quiet children and distracted adults are not healthy people. When we make these our family values, and maintain them at the expense of the real biological and neurological needs that both children and adults possess, our family cultures become ones that breed mental and physical illness.
Changing Home Culture
A healthy home culture should be one that nourishes the needs of each member of the family, and sees them as equally valid and valuable. Children’s movement and exploration needs must be met, and adults’ needs for calm and order must also be prioritized. How then, do we honor the needs of our children while still maintaining some semblance of peace and order for adults?
One simple antidote to these issues is more time spent together in nature. Another study published by JAMA Pediatrics in January 2023 revealed that many of the detrimental effects of screen time were mitigated by more time spent in nature (Sugiyama, et al.). Nature is a great way to counteract screen time because it embraces a child’s need for many different types of movement (running, jumping, etc.) while allowing adequate space for children to make a mess and experience the world without bringing that chaos directly into adult spaces within the home. Parents and adults also benefit from time in nature and from moving their bodies more. Time spent together outside provides novelty and chances for face-to-face interaction and connection. Investment in more nature time is an investment in the health of the entire family.
Another facet of creating a healthy home culture is the way we design our spaces. We often set up our homes with adults and passive entertainment in mind. Couches in a living room often face the television, and other toys and activities are tucked, minimalistically, out of sight rather than organized in a way to promote free play.
Andy Crouch, in his book The Tech-Wise Family encourages shaping the space of our home to nudge the family in the direction of making the healthiest and wisest choices. He says, “Fill the center of your life together – the literal center, the heart of your home, the place where you spend the most time together – with things that reward creativity, relationships, and engagement” (Crouch 71). In order to create a culture that encourages the development and health of both children and adults, we can focus on putting screens on the periphery while placing the things that encourage creativity and engagement in the center of our homes. After all, a home reflects what we value, and we should shape it with this in mind.
Having creativity and connection at the center of our living space will often involve embracing more messiness. This is a shift in priority that can make many adults feel uncomfortable. Again, it is important that the needs of every individual are prioritized within the family unit. Adults’ needs and children’s. There is an ancient proverb in the Bible that says, ”Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (Proverbs 14:4). In other words, in order to reap the rewards of abundant crops a farmer must put up with the mess, chores, and exhaustion that comes along with owning oxen. Similarly, in order to reap the benefits of raising healthy, whole, and enjoyable adults we must embrace the mess, chores, and exhaustion that comes from raising small children. It is a shift in priority that ultimately brings about great rewards.
While it’s important to remind parents that while the impact of screens can be detrimental, we also need to remember that it is never too late to begin making healthier choices. It’s important to never view our children through the lens of us having ‘ruined’ them, and then desperately trying to back track. The best practice is to make conscious decisions about how we want our lives to be, and apply the principles we encounter to the best of our ability – often slowly and be brave and make adjustments over time as new information (and research) becomes available to us.
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Crouch, Andy. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place. Baker Books, 2017.
Holcombe, Madeline. “Your Child’s Academic Success May Start with Their Screen Time as Infants, Study Says.” CNN, Cable News Network, 30 Jan. 2023,
Sugiyama M, Tsuchiya KJ, Okubo Y, et al. Outdoor Play as a Mitigating Factor in the Association Between Screen Time for Young Children and Neurodevelopmental Outcomes. JAMA Pediatr. Published online January 23, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5356
Law EC, Han MX, Lai Z, et al. Associations Between Infant Screen Use, Electroencephalography Markers, and Cognitive Outcomes. JAMA Pediatr. Published online January 30, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5674
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