Generation Alpha was born into a digital world and is on track to have more screen time than any prior generation. Most were born or started attending school during the pandemic and so were immersed in virtual experiences and screen time previously unimaginable. And now the consequences are becoming more clear.
A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics last month found an association between screen time at 1 year of age and a higher risk of delay in communication, fine motor skills, problem solving and personal/social skills at age 2. The researchers also found an association between screen time at age 1 and developmental delay at age 4 in communication and problem-solving.
The study results suggested an association between longer screen time at age 1 and developmental delays in communication and problem-solving at ages 2 and 4. Although the researchers have not established a causal relationship, the findings are important for parents to consider as they begin exposing their young children to screens.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, school districts around the country have increasingly incorporated the use of technology, such as tablets, into the day’s workflow, and some schools are sending tablets home for children to complete homework. This means children increasingly are expected to become proficient in navigating these devices just to get through their days. Schools are utilizing this approach because studies have shown the positive effects of interactive screen time in improving a child’s reading, writing and math skills. The benefits, however, have their limits.
Even before the pandemic, there was data demonstrating that students with more screen time were more likely to be depressed, anxious, have problems with attention, anger, frustration, disrupted sleep and lower quality of life. These students were also less physically active and had more problems with socialization.
For optimal development, children should spend time engaging with and learning from the environment, spend quality time with parents and other family members, eat regular healthy meals, get a good night’s sleep and participate in some form of physical activity on a daily basis. Children should learn the alphabet, numbers and naming by engaging with the physical world. They should be encouraged to play and to experience laughter, all of which are important for their development. Such activities help boost children’s confidence and support overall wellness.
It is much easier to limit a child’s screen time if parents model the behavior of using screens less themselves. A parent who is glued to a screen upon coming home from work will have a tough time convincing their child to limit screen time. Parents should also provide alternatives. They can take the child on nature walks, meet with friends for play dates or engage in activities that can help with a child’s development, like going to the library to take out physical books to read. Engaging in reading, board games, outdoor play, building, baking, musical instruments and arts and crafts are all great alternatives to screens. Incorporating team sports, dance, theater performances or other activities that require group collaboration could also be helpful. Fostering these good habits can have a lasting impact on a developing child’s brain.
It’s also useful to set device-free times, such as during dinner or other family activities. Adults can use parental controls on devices to limit a child’s screen time, however many children learn to get around those limits, so this could be just a short-term solution. It’s better to address the underlying problem, which is children’s perceptions that they need to be in front of screens.
These recommendations may not work for everyone. One study evaluating parents’ perceptions of screen time showed that some see screen time as a substitute babysitter or a tool to help their children learn important concepts and skills. Others indicated that they used screens as a reward or punishment for children.
Based on these trends and attitudes, it is important for parents and guardians to have guidance on how to manage what’s on their children’s screens. Pediatricians, psychologists and social workers can help parents select what forms of screen time would be best for their children. Interactive activities, puzzles, games and learning programs are good starting points. Physicians evaluating young patients should inquire about their screen time and the types of media they are engaging with.
Realistically, despite the extensive guidance suggesting children would be better served with less screen time, most are being exposed to screens earlier, are gradually spending more time in front of them and are learning how to navigate these devices at younger ages. Supporting parents and helping guide them with their children’s screen time usage could prove very helpful and can give some parents the encouragement they need to limit their children’s screen time. This support can also help children become more engaged with the physical world with the hope of enhancing their development.