Screen Time Affects Your Child’s Brain More Than You Think

Screen Time Affects Your Child's Brain More Than You Think

Takeaway: Screen time can mess with your child’s attention, language development, social awareness, and more. But it can also be very entertaining and educational. And the ‘type’ of screen time matters just as much as the ‘quantity.’ So, embrace the key principles of balance, active engagement, and safety in managing your child’s screen time.

Screen time has become a part of children’s everyday lives

Screens have become an integral part of our lives, including our children’s lives. From smartphones to tablets, televisions to laptops, children are exposed to screens at an increasingly early age. And this screen time can be passive (e.g., watching TV) or interactive (e.g., playing a video game). And while these devices can be educational and entertaining, it’s worth exploring how screen time affects children’s development.

Typically, screen time affects things like attention, memory, language development, and social awareness.

Neuroscientists and psychologists speak of ‘cognitive development’ – i.e., the development of conscious mental activity. And this is something that screen time can affect. For example, watching YouTube and playing computer games can affect a child’s attention (the ability to focus on something), memory (the ability to store information and learn from experiences), language development (including reading/writing skills), problem-solving, and more. Particularly, it can affect a child’s social cognition – i.e., the way children understand their social world, including interpreting others’ perspectives, recognising acceptable/unacceptable behaviour, and developing empathy.

For example, a child who spends hours watching mindless TV might struggle to read a thought-provoking book.

Excessive passive screen time can lead to focusing difficulties. For instance, a child who spends hours watching TV may struggle to concentrate on less stimulating tasks like reading a thought-provoking book. This could be because the instant gratification that screens often provide can make other tasks seem boring or unappealing. Similarly, too much TV time could affect young children’s language development because learning a language requires human interaction. So, unless your child is practising, making mistakes, and being corrected in real-life conversations, they’ll develop these skills more slowly.

It’s not all negative, though, because screen time does have valuable benefits.

Yes, it’s important to manage and monitor screen time – but screen time isn’t all bad. In fact, in small doses, it can be a positive thing. For instance, many high-quality educational apps, websites, and TV shows can support your child’s learning. (Khan Academy Kids is a perfect example – offering a wide range of lessons on subjects like maths, science, and reading.) Similarly, TV shows like Sesame Street and Peppa Pig are designed to be both entertaining and educational, teaching children about numbers, letters, social skills, and more. Then there’s the hand-eye coordination, spatial skills, and problem-solving abilities that video games can help improve. And finally, there’s the social benefit of staying in touch with distant friends and family via video calls and multiplayer online games.

What matters is the quality of screen time – and interactive screen time is of a higher quality than passive screen time.

Passive, non-interactive screen time is great for unwinding and relaxing after a busy day at school – but it can also put the mind to sleep. So, the trick is to keep screen time active and interactive, giving children a shot at self-directed learning where they can explore new facts and ideas. That’s not to say that passive screen time is bad. Rather, as with most things, balance and moderation are key.

There are a few rules of thumb we can follow regarding screen time.

We can use a few rules of thumb to guide our children’s screen time. For example, consider avoiding digital media for toddlers younger than 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting. For children aged 2 to 5, consider limiting screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programmes. And for older children and teens, ensure that time spent using media doesn’t replace adequate sleep, physical activity, and other essential personal habits.

But more importantly, as parents you can decide about screen time with these three principles in mind.

It’s best to organise screen time habits around three key themes: balance, engagement, and safety.

1. Balance: Don’t let screen time dominate your child’s day.

Balance is about ensuring that screen time doesn’t replace other important daily habits. For instance, physical activity is crucial for your child’s health and development, so you want to encourage them to go outside – playing, participating in sports, or exercising. It could be as simple as walking together after dinner or setting up a mini-football game in the backyard. Similarly, ensure that screen time doesn’t interfere with adequate sleep, which is essential for a child’s mental and physical development. Establishing screen-free times, particularly before bedtime, can help. For example, you might make a rule that all screens need to be turned off at least an hour or two before bed to help your child wind down and prepare for sleep.

2. Engagement: Switch to ‘active’ screen time where possible.

Engagement is about turning screen time into an interactive and educational experience rather than a passive one. This involves choosing high-quality content and engaging with your child during their screen time. For example, if your child is watching an educational show, sit with them and talk about what they’re learning. Ask questions, discuss the ideas presented in the show, and encourage your child to think critically about what they’re watching. This can make screen time so much more valuable and give you both a bonding opportunity. Similarly, encourage interactive educational games or apps which can support active learning. For instance, if your child is interested in animals, they might enjoy an app like WWF Free Rivers, which teaches about ecosystems interactively.

3. Safety: Keep screen time safe and age-appropriate.

Safety is about ensuring your child’s screen time is safe and age-appropriate. This involves using parental controls, teaching your child about online safety, and monitoring their screen time. So, use parental controls to block inappropriate content, set time limits, and track their usage. (For example, many devices have settings that allow you to restrict access to certain apps or websites and set a total limit on screen time for the day.) Teaching your child about online safety is also crucial. This includes teaching them not to share personal information online, to be respectful of others, and to tell you if they encounter anything that makes them uncomfortable.

If you’re concerned about screen time affecting your child, consider consulting with us.

It’s a tricky balancing act to let your children enjoy screen time but keep it from taking over their lives. So, if you need help figuring things out, do contact us for support. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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