Screen, Baby  – Let’s Look at Evidence, not Trends

Joint post by Nawal Abboub, PhD, & Sho Tsuji, PhD

French version here

Who hasn’t heard that “Children under two years of age should absolutely not be exposed to screen media, no matter what!” – maybe accompanied by the reasoning that “Screens will hinder the development of children’s intelligence.”

Why does the topic of the effect of screens on young children, especially with regard to their brain development, evoke so much controversy and fear? And should we actually think of all types of screen media as equal? What can scientific research teach us?

In order to answer these questions, we first need to understand the origin of this fear. Why do parents worry that much? What is really happening in babies’ brains during the first years of their life? Which factors do actually matter for development?

Better understanding how young brains develop and what factors are critical for ensuring stable foundations for learning will help us make more informed decision for our little ones with regard to our use of digital media.


Why are the first years of our children’s lives so important for learning?

Research over the past years has uncovered a lot about the cognitive development of young children. Thanks to advances in methods and experimental techniques (for instance, brain imaging and experimental psychology) we have accumulated more knowledge about young children’s cognition than ever before. This is the case especially with regard to language, one of the most central capacities of the human species. Language plays a key role in our everyday lives, whether it is for interacting with others, for communication, for thinking, or for reasoning – it’s indispensable for many of our cognitive functions. Language starts developing in the first months of life. In fact, babies even learn some things about their language before birth. Moreover, early language skills are also a stepping stone for success in primary and secondary education, and even for professional life later on. The more solid a young child’s linguistic foundations, the easier it will be to succeed in the education system. Considering this central role of language learning, it’s not surprising that caregivers are so concerned about their young children’s early development, and that they are wary of anything that might have a negative influence, for instance screen media.

So how do we create a good language learning environment for our children?

Recent scientific research suggests that the better the learning outcomes are the more a child is exposed to her or his mother tongue(s) from early on, and the richer and more varied the linguistic environment is. For example, parents’ use of a varied and rich vocabulary and complex sentences can positively influence children’s language skills, for instance a larger vocabulary and a more advanced grammar. But it’s not only the language input that matters: The quality of social interactions like talking to your child, jointly attending to an object, or singing songs together, play an important role as well. Numerous studies have shown that lack of social interaction can have negative effects on the mastery of the native language and on brain development. Attention, active engagement (curiosity, exploration), feedback (discussion), repetition, emotional security (positive emotions) – all these are crucial elements for the early acquisition of language, and for learning in more general.

Plenty of research thus shows us that a rich linguistic and social environment are indispensable for the development of both language and cognition.

Let’s revisit the question of screens and the famous “no screens before two years of age”

In fact, the well-known recommendations advising no screen time at all for children below two years of age were published in 1999  by the American Academy of Pediatrics. They were mainly based on studies on young children watching passive screen media like videos, DVDs, or TV. A child watching TV alone does not participate in natural interaction, thus missing out on stimulation that is crucial for development. This also means that there is only a small amount of shared attention (where someone directs attention on something in the environment), and little response to a child’s own actions. As we have seen further above, interaction is important for learning. During the first few months and years of life, which are critical for brain and cognitive development, passive TV exposure is thus not recommended.

In recent years, however, the screenscape has radically changed, and interactive screens have joined passive screen media. Between 2011 and 2014 alone, the percentage of US children below two years of age that have used interactive screen media like a smartphone increased from 10% to 38%. We just learned how important a stimulating and interactive environment is. And if we think about it, interactive screen media might create a very different situation for children compared to passive versions: Rather than passively watching, they can get active and control what appears on screen next.

Are screens really that bad?

What does that mean for recommendations on screen use in young children? In fact, we still do not know much about how interactive screen media affect young children – but as we will see below, the few things we do know suggest that interactive screens might not pose as big of a threat as some media want us to believe. Acknowledging this, recommendations have recently been updated, and a group of researchers has even sent an open letter to express their concerns with how negatively screen use for young children is characterized without proper research data backing it up.

So let’s see – what do we know about learning from interactive screens? Asking whether interactive screens are good or bad for children is probably not the right kind of question. Rather, we should ask what happens on and around the screen while a child is watching.

What happens on the screen?

Let’s first consider how what is on screen affects infant learning. New screen media like tablets and smartphones, as well as formats like video chat offer a radical departure from traditional screen media like TV or videos. The main distinguishing feature here is that they are interactive: While a TV program proceeds no matter what the child does, a video chat enables real time interaction, and an app on a tablet reacts when the child touches the screen. How does this change learning? Let us first look at video chat programs. Some recent studies show that children learn words similarly well from a person interacting with them on screen compared to a person interacting with them in the same room, thus suggesting that it is not the screen per se that hinders learning Interestingly, parents actually share the intuition that video chat is different from other screen media even without knowing about these results: A survey showed that a majority of parents of 6-24-month-olds allowed frequent video chat usage even if they restricted other types of screen media usage.

But what about interactive screen media without a real human being on the other end? Recent studies show that even virtual agents on screen can lead to gaze following and even word learning, but only if they are interactive, for instance  reacting to infants’ gaze direction by turning into the same direction the infant turns to. Similarly, in a touchscreen game, word learning works better if the child needs to press a specific place on screen in order for the program to progress compared to a condition where it proceeds passively or she can press anywhere on screen.

These studies show us that interactive screen media are more promising than passive screen media for supporting early language learning. However, most of these studies also suggest that the learning advantage is higher with children 2 years of age and older, leaving open the question to what extent younger infants can profit from interactive screen media. They also do not work under all conditions: Some features of interactive screen apps can be distracting and impede learning, and reduce relevant interaction with their caregivers during joint screen time. As we will see in the next section, such interaction can be key to successful learning from interactive screen media.

What happens around the screen?

Learning success from interactive screen media can be boosted by parents co-viewing with their children. Adults co-viewing with children can improve the learning experience through three channels: They can focus children’s attention on relevant aspects of the screen, they can provide cognitive support by asking questions and drawing connections, and they can highlight learning opportunities by their social cues like eye gaze and smiling. Multiple studies have shown that active parental co-viewing of screen content improves learning (Study 1, Study 2, Study 3). This is an important point to remember for parents. Although they habitually see book reading as a shared activity, they oftentimes conceive of screen time as solo time – which should not be the case.

Take home message

Interactive screen media are ever more present in children’s environments. We have seen that, compared to traditional screen formats, they are more promising in terms of augmenting early language learning. Researchers are actively working on understanding better the long-term effects of exposure to interactive screen media, and the exact conditions under which they can be beneficial for learning. Meanwhile:

  • Don’t ban, but limit screen time! Quality screen time in itself is not harmful, but children miss out on doing other activities if they are on the screen all the time. Mix it up and use new technologies, but don’t forget sport, music, and all other activities that are fun positively impact cognitive development.
  • Co-interact as much as you can! Learning from interactive screens is augmented by quality interactions with others
  • Watch the content! It might be hard to judge whether an app is truly educational, but you can watch out for distracting and superfluous content!



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