Quiet screen time for children under two may affect their development

Screens - we can’t live without them, but should our babies be living with them? Let’s admit it: many of us have tried to get a bit of quiet time (or chore time) by giving smartphones or tablets to our little ones, and it’s understandable when we've got so much to do! Screens are everywhere, and our children will eventually start using them just as we do. But it’s also understandable that you may be worried about how screen time might affect them.

The WHO recently set new guidelines surrounding screen time, which include no screen time for children under two. We looked at the latest evidence a little while back in our post on babies using tech. We concluded that smart devices can be helpful for their development, as long as they’re used in the right way.

Researcher Tim Smith found that the infants he looked at who use smart devices had better fine motor skills than the ones who didn’t. Dimitri Christakis believes that smart device use could take the place of watching TV, as they’re better for development. And Bedford et al found “no evidence of a negative association between toddlers’ use of touchscreen devices and developmental outcomes and even suggest a positive association with fine motor development.”

All of these findings, and more, are based around the idea of children using screen time for development. This includes playing educational games, or using it as bonding time with parents and siblings. But what about sedentary screen time?

Turn of devices a few hours before bed, then track baby sleep with Bluebell

Sedentary vs. developmental

The WHO is warning against this passive, sedentary screen time for children under two. This sort of screen time usage may happen if a child is given a smartphone or tablet to distract them or keep them quiet. It’s understandable that parents sometimes just need that extra bit of quiet time, but does the WHO have a point?

As soon as they can walk, children need at least three hours of physical activity a day. Babies need around 14-17 hours sleep a day. Add that to the time spent feeding, bathing, playing and learning – how much time does that really leave for sitting in front of a screen?

The WHO’s guidelines seem to be based on the idea that if children are sitting in front of a screen, and not using it for developmental activities, they are missing out on the other things that they need. The current UK recommendations from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health don’t set a limit on screen time. Instead, they advise negotiating screen time, not letting it interfere with other activities and switching off an hour before bedtime.

A recent study from O.Mireku et al found links between night-time screen use and poor sleep outcomes. Another study from Tamana et al found screen time use to be linked with lack of attention in pre-schoolers. With all of this scary information surfacing, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Research into this area is so new that there are no clear guidelines and messages appear to be mixed.

So what can busy and tired parents do from here?

  1. Remember that there is still a lot of research that needs to be done in this area. As technology grows, so does our understanding of its impact and there are lots of clever people working to find out what that impact is - we’ll give you more guidance as it comes.
  2. Screens are everywhere. You’re reading this on a screen right now. So maybe, instead of a blanket ban, we need to learn how to develop the ways in which we use technology (i.e. use them for education and bonding to help boost development).
  3. If you are allowing them some screen time, it may be good to monitor how much they’re getting. And of course, switch off at least an hour before bed.
  4. Be mindful of their screen time use. Ask yourself if you’re using screens to pacify your little one? Are they getting enough physical activity? Are they spending plenty of time learning, developing and socialising?
  5. Be mindful of your own screen time use. We’re our children’s greatest role models, and they love to imitate us. It’s been found that some children have to compete against devices as they grow up, creating developmental delays. We’re not saying you should lock your phone away until baby goes to sleep, but just be aware of how much you use it around them.

Get your time back with baby tracking and monitoring from Bluebell

To find out more about your baby’s developmental stages, we’ve got a series of blog posts that can help you out:

Let us know what you think babies using screens is a good or bad idea!