Evidence suggests that screen viewing (including TV, smartphones, computers, tablets, etc.) before age 2 has lasting negative effects on children’s language development, reading skills, and short-term memory. It also contributes to problems with sleep and attention. If “you are what you eat,” then the brain is what it experiences, and video entertainment is like mental junk food for babies and toddlers.
The problem lies not only with what toddlers are doing while they’re watching TV; it’s what they aren’t doing. Specifically, children are programmed to learn from interacting with other people. The dance of facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language between a toddler and parent is not only beautiful, it’s so complex that researchers have to record these interactions on video and slow them down just to see everything that’s going on. Whenever one party in this dance, child or parent, is watching TV, the exchange comes to a halt. A toddler learns a lot more from banging pans on the floor while you cook dinner than he does from watching a screen for the same amount of time, because every now and then the two of you look at each other.
Just having the TV on in the background, even if “no one is watching it,” is enough to delay language development. Normally a parent speaks about 940 words per hour when a toddler is around. With the television on, that number falls by 770! Fewer words means less learning. Toddlers are also learning to pay attention for prolonged periods.
Toddlers who watch more TV are more likely to have problems paying attention at age 7. Video programming is constantly changing, constantly interesting, and almost never forces a child to deal with anything more tedious than an infomercial.
After age 2 things change, at least somewhat. During the preschool years some children do learn some skills from educational TV. Well-designed shows can teach kids literacy, math, science, problem-solving, and pro-social behavior. Children [may] get more out of interactive programs like Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street when they answer the characters’ questions. Educational TV makes the biggest difference for children whose homes are the least intellectually stimulating.
Regardless of content, cap your child’s TV time at 2 hours a day. Remember, too, TV is still TV whether you actually watch it on a TV screen or on a mobile phone or computer.
Instead of focusing on whether young children are able to learn their ABCs from an app, we should be looking at what child development research has been telling us and asking whether the warm, language-rich interaction between young children and their caregivers is happening when they use digital media. The personal interaction is so critical for developing the cognitive, social, emotional, and linguistic skills children need for school and life success. This exchange is where early learning is most likely to occur. The smartphones, computers, tablets, and digital cameras are already in children’s environments. It is up to caregivers to find ways to appropriately use the digital objects that permeate young children’s lives.