Today’s modern world is rife with graphics, media exposure, and ever-expanding entertainment technology. At the same time, young children, particularly those of preschool age or younger, are going through rapid stages of brain development. Many of these processes will affect the way the child thinks and processes information well into their adult years.

This leaves many parents wondering about things like “Screen Time” and what type of messages are appropriate for their child’s stage of development. At the current time, clinical research into this very important subject is limited.

As pediatricians who are passionate about guiding your child through every stage of development, we at the Pediatric Group offer some key insights into a child’s brain development. Bearing these things in mind can help you decide what level of screen time, media exposure, and messages is right for your child.

The Impact of Technology and Media on Infants and Toddlers

Babies and children under the age of two are actively engaged in hands-on exploration of their world. The stimulus they receive from direct contact with caregivers, parents, and other children play a lot into their cognitive, verbal, motor, and emotional skill development.

Their brains are wired with as basic symbolic, memory, and attentional skills. This makes it very difficult for children under the age of two to learn from digital media. Instead, they tend to focus on direct interactions with caregivers. Once they pass the age of 15 months, a child can start to learn by watching something, and then imitating it with their caregiver, as a form or re-teaching or reinforcement.

After 15 months of age, children may start interacting with touchscreen devices and applications. There are many available through reputable developers, who design programs to help improve a child’s response and develop new skills appropriate to their age.

A growing body of research has also found that at around two years of age, children can learn new words via video chats and other applications with adults. Some program developers include interactive touchscreens to help interface with the child, so they can choose the correct answers when prompted by the adult they are interacting with.

When a parent is traveling or away from home for a prolonged amount of time children over the age of two can video chat through apps like Skype or FaceTime. This can also be an effective way for children to stay connected with family members who might live far away. However, at this age, they typically need help from a parent or caregiver to operate the device.

However, there is the potential for a child to receive too much screen time at this age, which can affect how they interact and learn from the world around them. One general rule of thumb put forth by many experts in the field is to limit the screen time/media exposure of a child under the age of two to 2-hours per day.

How Does Media Exposure Affect Preschool Age and Older Children?

Children between the ages of three to five years old typically enjoy engaging quality TV shows. Research has shown that accredited programs can help a child in this age range to improve their cognitive, literary, and social skills.

Many of these programs also touch on important subjects like household safety, emotional resilience, self-confidence, healthy eating, and being a good friend. This is a somewhat saturated industry, and it can be hard to find true quality apps while searching through the myriad of options. Sesame Workshop and other apps associated with PBS programs tend to be a good place for parents to start.

When considering an app, you should try to prioritize apps that appeal to a child’s higher-order thinking skills. This helps with things like executive function, impulse control, regulating emotions, creativity, and mental dexterity.

Can E-Books Help A Child Develop New Skills?

E-books and similar digital resources can help children who are learning to read. They can be particularly helpful with phonics, as well as the ability to follow basic instructions. Some can be linked with app features that allow the child to read along, while others may need to be ready by a parent or caregiver.

Message Selection

Children process information in different ways, at different stages of development. A child who is exposed to messages that are too advanced for them struggles to understand. In many of these situations, they can experience stress or develop issues with processing other more age-appropriate information they are exposed to. Some may even start to act out or attempt to reenact an inappropriate scene.

In some of these scenarios, the gulf between the message and the child’s stage of development can be obvious. Yet there are other times when there may be a gray area between what a child can process and a new type of message.

One example would be the “Therapeutic Stress” of a child watching a new television program that introduces a new skill they are nearly ready for. In a scenario like this, a child might feel mild, initial frustration learning early math when they have only mastered counting. Yet as time goes on they may find the show rewarding as they continue to learn.

It can be hard to tell what kind of messages are age-appropriate for your child’s stage of development. The Pediatric Group can help you understand what type of messages, lessons, and activities are right for your child’s current stage, and what might be beyond their scope of understanding.

Of course, as children grow older, they also tend to be more curious about new messages. Even something as simple as you stepping into the kitchen or going to the lavatory could prove a tempting opportunity for a curious child to start exploring with the remote control.

To help prevent your child from accidentally being exposed in messages that are not appropriate for their stage of development, we often recommend setting up parental controls. Today’s technology has furnished many television systems, web browsers, and wireless devices with advanced parental controls. Some even have notification alerts that can be built in.

Developmental and Health Concerns Related to Excess Screen Time

Of course, there are other factors associated with media consumption and excess screen time that go beyond just mental development in young children.

The Threat of Obesity

A growing body of research has found that excessive media use, particularly during the preschool years can be associated with an increase in a child’s Body Mass Index. Even children who might not show immediate signs of obesity, may develop obesity-related health issues later in childhood, and potentially into their young adult life.

Part of this phenomenon is believed to be linked to excessive exposure to food advertising, as well as inactivity. Eating while watching television may also be a factor in increased rates of juvenile obesity. If you have concerns about your child’s eating habits and media consumption, the specialists at the Pediatric Group can provide you tips to help get your child more active.

This might include things like limited their programming to networks that don’t have food advertising. Enrolling them in a sport can also increase activity levels, or developing new family habits, like going on evening walks together can also help reduce their risk of juvenile obesity.

Media Exposure’s Effects On Sleep Quality

Media exposure and the type of light generated by many television, computer screens, and mobile devices can impact a child’s ability to fall asleep. This is related in part to the blue light emitted by these screens which can partially suppress endogenous melatonin production in the brain. Depending on the content of the images, it can also affect their sleep quality during the night.

Making a conscious effort to reduce screen time in the evening hours or cutting off access to media an hour or two before bedtime can help your child get to sleep. It can also improve their chances of remaining asleep throughout the night.

Being Mindful Of Your Own Media Use

Many adults will turn on the television for background noise, or simply watch television while their child plays. While this might seem innocuous at first, it can have an impact on a child’s attention level. Many forms of adult media, even when completely appropriate, can distract a child, as well as limit their interactions with you and others in the room.

In the long-term, this could lead to a decrease in verbal and non-verbal development. At the same time, children often mimic their parent’s behavior. A child who observes the parent frequently using media is more likely to grow up to become a heavy media users as well.

Finding The Right Balance For Your Child and Family

At the Pediatric Group, we are dedicated to helping you guide your child into a happy, healthy young adult. We are here to be a resource for all your parental cares and concerns.

Our physicians and specialists can work with you to understand what is in your child’s best interests, and how to implement new changes. This can include things like developing healthy family habits and activities, or perhaps setting up rules for media use based on your child’s stage of development. As always the overarching goal is to ensure that your child’s media exposure is beneficial and healthy as part of a well-balanced life.