Screen Time For Babies: Is it Harmful or Helpful?

Savannah Bee is 32 weeks and 3 days old today! That means a little over seven months for you dads out there! All of my screen time research was measured in weeks for some reason. Alex and I have had the screen time conversation a few times. Mostly back when she was just a couple months old and we were trying to think of every parenting topic to discuss our beliefs on since we were new parents and starting to realize we didn’t really know the other’s values when it came to baby stuff. We both decided that screen time wasn’t for us. Boom. Easy decision. But wait, does Facetime with the grandparents during COVID count? What about if she checks out the T.V. while we have it on in the background all day long. What about when she is crying nonstop and then she discovers our phone and instantly stops crying. Does that count? I love the compromises we are willing to make as parents under the right circumstances. Today, with a lighthearted lens, I am going to discuss screen time. Once again, I have done some quick research and would like to share what I have found with you all. This isn’t the end all be all and of course, there will be compromises.

The Harmful

According to Healthy Children’s website, baby’s brains will only start to know what the symbols on a screen actually represent in the real world around 18 months. Okay, so what does that mean? Again, according to Healthy Children’s website, babies at this age need to be learning to interact with people and physical objects. They go on to say, “okay that may be true, but what is the harm is a little screen time then in between physical interaction?” The answer, screen time at this age can lead to problems with language development, poor reading skills, short term memory problems, problems with sleep and attention.

Brett Molina on USA Today writes multiple studies have shown too much screen time have been linked to physical and mental health issues. The World Health Organization says children under two years old should not spend any time in front of screens. The American Heart Association urges parents to cut back their children’s screen time due to child obesity. Let’s take a look at what I could find on brain development specifically.

Brain Development

Get excited for more research articles and studies! To begin , here is the article that gives us the basis of how many babies are looking at screens and at what ages. 40% of 3-month-old’s all the way up to 90% for 2 year old’s are regularly experiencing screen time. And here is the study on thousands of children to help us get an idea of how this impacts their brain.

The findings according to National Institutes of Health, children with more than two hours a day of screen time got lower scores on thinking and language tests. The same study revealed a thinning of the outermost layer of their brains!! Yikes! The study says this is an important part of the brain, but isn’t every part of your brain, important?! Their research agrees with the previous article by Healthy Children’s that children under 18 months cannot translate the two-dimensional screen into the physical world. Now, let’s look at physical development.

Physical Development

Physical development is referring to baby’s sleep patterns, babies weight, diminished fine motor development. This article by Lovevery found there to be a “point by point” increases in sleep disruption. This means the longer the screen time, the worse sleep your baby is getting. They used an example that a quarter of an hour of screen time would mean about four minutes less sleep. I’m not sure if that is an exact science, but I get the idea. All day is screen time is pretty bad for your baby’s sleep! The article goes on to say there was no safe amount of screen time. Meaning any amount of screen time was going to equal at least some negative effects on child weight, motor functions and sleep. Sleep being the most important because all of us, but babies most of all, grow and develop during sleep. That means brain development, especially.

The Helpful

It’s not all bad. Here is an article posted by Popular Science that says the World Health Organization’s statements on screen time and your baby’s health are more complicated than it may seem. Sure, I imagine that is true, statistics are never what they seem. It says the overall message we are getting as parents is screen time = bad things, but really the research isn’t backing that up. The research is more about physical activity, sedentary behavior, and sleep and how those things are important. It says there is actually very little research on screen time and if it is detrimental to health.

Here is an article called, “I Allow My Baby Screen Time. Don’t Judge Me. Learn How I Do It.” She talks about how all of her research shows not to allow screen time to children under the age of 2 and how when she was pregnant, she vowed she would never… but then she did and she goes into how and why she does it. Go and read that article.

Alright, so far it seems I am finding almost everything says no amount of screen time is healthy, it may lead to potential horrible side effects like brain development, significant child weight problems, and poor social skills, but some of the research suggests we don’t know if any of that is actually true.

Does FaceTime Count?

Yes. FaceTime counts. No research necessary here. Obviously, FaceTime counts and because your baby is looking directly at the screen. This is one of the compromises I was discussing earlier. In my mind, FaceTime is slightly better than giving your child your phone to keep them occupied while you try to do something else, like clean or cook dinner. Why, well because with FaceTime I am holding Savannah and she is watching Alex and I interact with the person on the other end of the phone. It’s not one on one with Savannah and the screen. Also, she is hearing the specific voice of the other person on the line. We hope this is helping her get to know grandparents and great grandparents. My last post was on stranger danger and how Savannah is starting to experience some anxiety around people she doesn’t see very often. We hope that through FaceTime, she can start to learn a familiar face and/or a familiar voice. Especially during this global pandemic.

What’s the Limit?

What I am finding on Main Line Health and many other websites is a zero tolerance policy is the best. No screen time for babies under 2 years old. I am sure a lot of parents will disagree. And that is okay. Alex and I always say, we are not experts. If you are really worried, ask the experts in your life, like your pediatrician for their opinion.

The only exception to the rule and even Main Line Health agrees is FaceTime with family. It’s not sedentary screen time. It is interacting with friends on the other line and the one operating the device on baby’s end.

After 2 years old all the official rules change. There are various time limits suggested and it is also recommended to make the most of screen time. That means use it for FaceTime and education. There are a lot of educational kid friendly YouTube videos and problem solving apps out there. Perhaps someday Alex or myself will write a blog on that!

Helpful Tips

Here are two awesome articles by BBC News Health and Lovevery with helpful tips on screen time alternatives:

  • Make the most of FaceTime
  • Be physically active several times a day
  • Use a physical object instead of a screen
  • Use a daycare center or preschool with a no screen time policy
  • Let caregivers know your family rules
  • Pack a variety of alternatives
  • Check with other parents during playdates to see what their beliefs are
  • Turn off the background TV

Alex and I are not perfect. We have the TV on in the background basically 24/7. That is the first thing I noticed when I was making this list… uh oh! I was happy to discover that other people agree that FaceTime isn’t quite as bad. Savannah has picked up one of our phones a few times and I have noticed that the bright screen seems to grab her attention quickly. I can see how that could be easy for parents when they just want a moment of peace and quiet! There really are so many alternatives. I know Savannah is almost always interested in anything that she hasn’t been playing with in the last 10 minutes. If it seems new to her, she is excited.

Wrap Up

What do you think? Do you agree with me? Tell me in the comments below. I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about “Screen Time” with you today. There are so many articles out there worth reading about this. It really makes me feel confident knowing Savannah is hopefully not getting so much screen time that she will experience the negative side effects. Just a compromise or two so we can FaceTime our amazing family and friends across the globe! Please let Alex and I know your screen time tips and tricks! Also, if there is a topic you would like us to cover, let us know and we will try to do that for you. Thank you for reading and happy parenting!