Little Hands Are For Building—How Screens Impact Young Children

“How adults monitor their own screen time in the presence of children often translates into how present they are with the children.”

Screens seem to be ever present, and as we click, sweep, and scroll through our lives, kids are becoming tech savvy earlier and earlier.

With so many games and apps available, it’s easy to place screens into little hands. Yet experts say there are good reasons to hold off. Diana Shepherd, PhD, says that for children under the age of five, there are few (if any) benefits from using screens—and potentially many harmful consequences. “Infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they can, and do, from interactions with caregivers,” explains Dr. Shepherd.

How they learn

Young children are wired to learn about the world through their senses. Thomas Kaut, a Montessori school administrator, serves children ages two through 12, explains, “Children are active learners. Viewing a screen does not provide the same learning opportunity as active exploration with their hands. You can always do better with blocks, sand, and water.”

When a child builds a tower with wooden blocks, she gains skills in all areas of development. She learns about shape, size, texture, weight, and spatial concepts as she picks up and places each piece. She counts and sorts her blocks. She repeatedly squats and stands, describes her structure, and negotiates with peers. In contrast, the click-and-drag virtual tower offers few of these learning opportunities.

Kaut worries that the more time young children spend with screens, the less time they’re engaged in real-life activities that support cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development. They aren’t moving their bodies, playing outside, and interacting with adults and other children. Problems such as language delay, obesity, and sleep disturbance have been linked to increased screen time and early exposure to screens.

They’re watching us

Young children need loving caregivers to sing, read, play, and cuddle with them. “The parent is the child’s first and most important teacher,” says Tami Winternitz, director of a preparation program for early childhood education (ECE) teachers. This means children also depend on parents to be good models. “How adults monitor their own screen time in the presence of children often translates into how present they are with the children,” Winternitz says.

Interruptions caused by our devices, can negatively impact parent-child interactions. Dr. Shepherd says that when the television is on, even in the background, parents spend less time talking to and playing with their infants. “Positive engagement is reduced when parents are distracted by their devices, diverting their attention to a text, media message alert, snapping photos, or watching television,” she says. What’s more, research indicates that when parents allow these technology-based interruptions, children often respond with negative attention-seeking behavior—whining, crying, clinging, or otherwise “acting out.”

Be mindful of content

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under 18 months avoid screen exposure except for video chatting. For children up to five years, screen time should be limited to one hour per day of high-quality programming, viewed with an adult. “Letting children use media by themselves should be avoided,” says Dr. Shepherd, explaining that adults need to help children interpret what they are seeing and apply it to the real world.

In addition, parents must choose content carefully. On-screen violence can lead to increased aggression, particularly among boys. And young children whose media diet includes lots of fast-paced programming with multiple screen shifts (think SpongeBob), are at greater risk for attentional difficulties. “Parents must ask themselves,” says Dr. Shepherd, “What do I want my children to experience and learn from media, and how will this shape their thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors?”

Digital books should be previewed, too. Research has shown that distracting elements—sounds, lights, and animation—may decrease a child’s ability to follow the plot. But comprehension increases when an ebook is viewed with an adult and includes features such as word highlighting and repeatable text.

It’s helpful to note that there’s no harm in not exposing a young child to screens. Parents are often misled when toys and apps are marketed as “educational.” They want to provide every advantage, and many parents worry their children will be left behind without access to the latest technology. However, most research indicates young children do not benefit from using these products, and experts agree that kids learn best when reading books and doing other hands-on activities with their caregivers.

Setting boundaries

Though it’s tempting to hand a tablet or phone to a fussy, bored child, it should be avoided. “Using a screen as a babysitter or distractor may make the situation easier on the adult for that moment,” says Winternitz. “However, a screen will not likely provide what the child actually needs—food, rest, comfort, calm, support, or social interaction.”

Dr. Shepherd also cautions parents against using a screen as the go-to for calming a child—this can lead to problems with a child’s ability to self-regulate. As a busy mom to six children, she knows it’s not always easy. “But the patterns we establish early guide their behaviors as they grow up,” she says. “When they are young, that’s the time to invest in their future by making these choices and by making time to engage with them.”

Things to do without digital interference!

Walk through your neighborhood without your phone. Comment on the weather, pets, vehicles, neighbors.
Use texture—soft, rough, bumpy, slick—in your play time.
Install a sandbox.
Build a fort with cardboard boxes and blankets.
Play old board games, like Hi Ho Cherry-O, Candyland or Chutes and Ladders.
Create portable activity boxes (stickers, pipe cleaners, putty, paper and markers, small board books, dolls) for waiting rooms, restaurants, car rides.
Pull a chair up to the sink and let your toddler play with bubbles while you make dinner.
Watch old episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a great example of the slow-paced, prosocial content that’s appropriate for young children.
Set ‘no-screen’ times and places (dinner table, bedtime routine).
Talk to your child about what he’s feeling, and comfort him.
Sing, dance, and read with your children.