Screen Rules for Your Baby

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Screens from computers to phones have become an omnipresent technology in the modern landscape. Image Source/Alamy

In October 2014,  Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the welfare of babies, released a guide called Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight that examines screen-based media’s role in infant and toddler development. Though childcare professionals have long railed against infants spending any time in front of electronic screens, the realities of the 21st century make that increasingly difficult for parents to adhere to. “Touchscreen devices and video are part of the environment of childhood now,” explains Dr. Georgene Troseth of Vanderbilt University. “In the context of exposure to lots of real-world experiences with other people and real objects, a limited amount of exposure to screens is unlikely to harm development.”  

In a world of iPads, Androids, touch-screens and interactive video games, a zero-tolerance approach to screens is not only outdated, it ignores the pivotal role technology will play in your child’s future. The key, according to Troseth, is moderation. “Keep screen time in balance with other activities, and don’t expect screen learning to take the place of real-world interaction,” she implores.

Some specially made screen-based media can even be beneficial for the developing brain. “Interaction or responsiveness is an important clue that helps very young children learn. It’s how they identify information as being ‘for them,’” explains Troseth. “When a person on-screen actually talks to and responds to a viewing child [as in video chat, for example], the child may be more likely to connect what the person says to the real world.”

This new outlook on screen media flies in the face of years of American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, which advised against any screen time for children younger than 2 years old. Based on the premise that screen time cuts into real-world interaction between parent and child, the AAP’s recommendations failed to take into account the possibility of screen time shared between the two, the kind afforded by communal use of a laptop, iPad or other device.

Research does indicate that constant background TV isn’t great, because it distracts both parents and babies from interacting in more meaningful ways. However, in addition to real-world interaction, Troseth and others in her field are beginning to see active, as opposed to passive, screen time can actually teach your baby how to associate information with real world situations. Interaction with parents, toys, books and sandboxes will never stop being integral to your baby’s brain, but recent studies show children learned vocabulary and language skills remarkably well from a video chat.

One milestone Troseth feels parents should watch for when scheduling screen time is whether their infant can understand the images on the screen are symbolic in nature. “It’s a lot for young children to figure out how an on-screen image differs from, but is similar to, and represents, reality,” she says. Babies and toddlers may not make that connection, which can hinder their learning, but older preschoolers appear to have mastered the concept that the flat, 2-D images on the screen won’t interact with them the same way their parents in the next room will. Like most milestones, the age at which the infant gains this ability depends on the individual. “It’s wrongheaded to keep kids completely away from screens until some ‘magic’ threshold age,” says Troseth. “Look for connections a child is making between what’s on the screen and the real world, just as you would when reading a picture book. Children learn how to use an information source like a video or a touch screen partly by seeing how parents use them.”   

Screen time is still a slippery slope among new parents because the debate still rages on, and the burden on parents to make the right decision about the controversial techniques induces a great deal of stress. But according to Troseth, the biggest thing to remember is not to panic. “To me,” she says, “the guilt that moms and dads feel about their child playing on their iPhone or being exposed to a little background TV is adding an unnecessary burden to parents’ lives. Shared enjoyment when parents and kids watch or play together, or seeing your child happily engaged by a well-designed app or video, is an incredible benefit of well-managed screen time. It’s an opportunity for a shared activity between parent and child.”

This article appears in the latest Newsweek Special Edition, Your Baby's Brain: How New Science is Unlocking the Secrets of the Infant Mind” by Issue Editor James Ellis of Topix Media Lab.