Screen time and healthy early childhood development: What now?
By Jessica Holden, Ed.D., Director of Teaching and Learning, USD 253, Emporia Public Schools
The coronavirus pandemic brought with it a myriad of challenges for parents, especially in countries around the world where strict restrictions were in place for extended periods of time. Concerns over loss of earnings, lack of available childcare, the confinement of young children to the house or home, and over social development of their children, all acted as stressors for families attempting to maintain a sense of normality. Understandably, parents turned to whatever digital tools they could find to help with education, keep children entertained, and to remain connected with loved ones. It is not surprising, therefore, that in a recent Pew Research Center survey about eight-in-ten parents of a child who was age 11 or younger (81%) said their kid used or interacted with a tablet computer – even if just to watch videos or listen to music – up from 68% a year previously. About seven-in-ten (71%) said the same thing about their kid’s use of a smartphone, up from 63% the year before. And 51% of parents with a young child said their child used a game console or portable game device (McClain, 2022).
Figure 1. Baby in Front of a Computer Screen (by Mylene2401 on Pixabay)
Jump in electronic device use by children
While these statistics might be considered somewhat concerning, the spike in device use can be logically explained given the necessity of the nature of the interaction with these technologies. This is not necessarily the case, however, when the data are viewed regarding preschool-aged children. In cases where parents answered about a child under the age of 5, there were also double-digit increases in children using a tablet (51% in 2020 to 69% in 2021) or a game console or portable game device (16% to 29%) over this period (McClain, 2022). There was even a 4% increase (from 1% to 5%) for parents with a child who was younger than 5 using the social media site TikTok. Given that pediatric guidelines have consistently suggested that infants under the age of 2 should avoid all use of screen time, and that children aged 2 to 5 years of age should have no more than one hour a day of screen time these data are considerably more troubling (McArthur, Volkova, Tomopoulos, & Madigan, 2022). Indeed, a meta-analysis of 95 samples, numbering over 89,000 children, revealed that more than 75% of children under that age of 2 and 64% of children aged 2 to 5, did not meet these pediatric guidelines (McArthur, Volkova, Tomopoulos, & Madigan, 2022).
The 2020 New York Times article “Coronavirus Ended the Screen-Timer Debate. Screens Won” gives context to this data, intimating that the isolation of the pandemic caused many parents to revisit their previous concerns regarding the dangers of excessive screen time for young children (Bowles, 2020). The article highlights several cases of parents turning towards increased screen time for their children despite the risks. Miju Han, a cybersecurity company employee testifies that her six-week-old son regularly uses FaceTime as even though the American Academy of Pediatrics is against this, his grandparents want to see their baby grandson (Bowles, 2020). Similarly, Dr. Daniela Helitzer, a doctor of audiology, speaks of allowing her two- and three-year-old children to use screens as much as they can! (Bowles, 2020). These types of anecdotes are all too common following the pandemic experience where parents, stressed and exhausted from the challenges of family seclusion, give in to the convenience of increased screen time comforting themselves with the notion that they are living in extreme times. The emerging data supports this testimony, where screen time used by children 4 to 15 years of age was found to have more than doubled during the pandemic and where some children’s mobile applications reported an 80% increase in the number of users (Richtel, 2021). The question remains, however, what the long-term effects might be of such trends, especially for children under the age of 5.
Figure 2. Screentime Outdoors (photo taken Sept. 28, 2021, by Enoch Leung and shared via Flickr)
Positive and negative effects of frequent digital technology usage
Scientific research has revealed that frequent use of digital technology can have both a negative and positive impact on brain function and behavior (Korte, 2020). “Potential harmful effects of extensive screen time and technology use include heightened attention-deficit symptoms, impaired emotional and social intelligence, technology addiction, social isolation, impaired brain development, and disrupted sleep.” (Small et al., 2020, p.179). These negative effects are amplified in younger children when their brains are considered “plastic” meaning that they can adapt and shift based upon influencing circumstances (Engle, 2021). Recently concerns have grown over the addictive characteristics of prolonged technology use by young children (MacMullin, Lunsky & Weiss, 2016), especially where loud music, flashing lights, and highly active screen movements might cause hyperarousal of some systems in the brain (Singer, 2017). Implications in young children’s eyesight have also been documented as concerns, showing a 2.6% growth in myopia cases in children (Alvarez-Peregrina et al., 2020) Given the strong link between electronic media and disrupted sleep, and the critical nature of good sleep in the early childhood years, this type of over-stimulation is also a cause for parental concern. The argument, therefore, that parents would be best served returning to pre-pandemic patterns of behavior where technology use with children under the age of 5 was far closer to pediatric guidelines, stands to reason.
This depiction of the potential challenges does not, however, address the full complexity of the issues faced by parents. Firstly, not all applications and online tools have a negative impact on brain functioning, and as a result parents of young children should not necessarily dismiss the possibility that interaction with screens, even at a relatively early age, can serve a positive purpose. Some applications, online media, and digital tools, can offer useful mental health interventions, serve as a source of important social interactions for isolated individuals, and can even offer distractive entertainment which may improve mood and behavior even in young children (Holden, 2019). Additionally, as with any potentially addictive behavior, there will need to be a motivated and sustained approach to changing established patterns of technology use. According to Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, there is likely to be a period of epic withdrawal as the longer habituated behaviors have been practiced, the harder it is to break the habit (Engle, 2021). Strong decisions surrounding screen time can be difficult to make for parents in many cases, who express a frustration and hopelessness in the options open to them as returning to pre-pandemic rules seems both impractical and even unkind to children who have come to see screens as a major source of their socialization with others (Richtel, 2021).
Balance and flexibility
As with all complex problems, the best resolution is most likely found using a balanced and flexible approach to the development of potential solutions. Clearly, we must recognize that the continued overuse of screen has the potential to have long-lasting negative effects in healthy brain development in young children yet denying them some of the positive consequences of some screen time may not be the best path forward. What is critical, however, is the role that parents play in how, when, and why children under the age of 5 use digital technologies. Our best advice for parents lies in urging them to consider all aspects of the relevant context and in making the best, evidence-based decisions available to them. Dr Adam Holden in his 2019 publication "Technology and Early Digital Culture," suggests that we should consider the following key factors when making these types of decisions:
- Always ensure that any technology used promotes the social, emotional, and physical wellbeing of all children.
- Consider the purpose of any technology use. Technology is only successfully integrated if it genuinely plays a meaningful role in delivering the intended outcome.
- Young children should not be passive in their use of technology and should be encouraged to use digital tools interactively and collaboratively whenever possible. Long periods of passive “watching” is not a good thing!
- Any use of technology should be limited considerably and should only be used as a small part of healthy play and interactive, age-appropriate, life experiences.
- Young children develop at different rates and therefore need to interact with digital sounds, images, and content in different ways. In the case of very young children their initial introduction to digital media is best experienced alongside an adult who can guide the experience.
- Students must be given time to play, explore, and experiment with digital tools before being expected to use them in a meaningful learning experience.
- Parents should always be aware of the details of all content used. (Holden, 2019)
While not a totally comprehensive list of considerations, these factors serve as a sound starting point for parents. That, and the adage “all things in moderation!”
Figure 3. Girl Reading an E-Book (by janeb13 on Pixabay)
Alvarez-Peregrina, C., Sanchez-Tena, M., Martinez-Perez, C., Villa-Collar, C. (2020) The Relationship Between Screen and Outdoor Time with Rates of Myopia in Spanish Children. Frontiers in Public Health, 8.
Bowles, N. (2020, March 31) Coronavirus Ended the Screen-Time Debate. Screens Won. The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/31/technology/coronavirus-screen-time.html
Engle, J. (2021, January 22) How Worried Should We Be About Screen Time During the Pandemic? The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/22/learning/how-worried-should-we-be-about-screen-time-during-the-pandemic.html
Holden, A. (2019) Technology and Early Digital Culture, In D. Fitzgerald, & H. Maconochie, (Eds) Early Childhood Studies: A Student’s Guide. SAGE Publications, London UK
Korte M. (2020). The impact of the digital revolution on human brain and behavior: where do we stand? Dialogues in Clinical Meuroscience, 22(2), 101–111.
MacMullin, J. A., Lunsky, Y., & Weiss, J. A. (2016). Plugged in: Electronics use in youth and young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 20(1), 45-54.
McArthur, B., Volkova, V., Tomopoulos, S., & Madigan, S. (2022) Global Prevalence of Meeting Screen Time Guidelines Among Children 5 Years and Younger: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 176(4) 373–383.
McClain, C., (2022, April 28) How parents’ views of their kids’ screen time, social media use changed during COVID-19. Pew Research Center Retrieved 25 May 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/04/28/how-parents-views-of-their-kids-screen-time-social-media-use-changed-during-covid-19/#:~:text=Some%20changes%20in%20parents'%20management%20of%20screen%20time&text=Some%2016%25%20of%20parents%20with,not%20done%20this%20in%202020.
Richtel, M. (2021, January 17) Children’s Screen Time Has Soared in the Pandemic, Alarming Parents and researchers. The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/16/health/covid-kids-tech-use.html
Singer, E. (2017). The Neurological Roots of Aggression. [online] MIT Technology Review. Available at: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/409013/the-neurological-roots-of-aggression/
Small, G., Lee, J., Kaufman, A., Jalil, J., Siddarth, P., Gaddipati, H., Moody, T., & Bookheimer, S. (2020) Brain health consequences of digital technology use, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 22(2), 179-187
About the Author
Jessica Holden is an accomplished international school administrator with more than twenty years of experience in both K-12 and higher education settings. Dr Holden earned her doctorate degree in Education Leadership, specialising in bilingual education and has leadership qualifications in Early Childhood Education, Elementary Education, and Gifted Learning. Jessica has a research agenda focused specifically on cultural diversity in education, the teaching of English as a Second Language, and bilingual education.
Dr Jessica Holden may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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