Screen Time Effects on Children’s Brain Development and Sensory Processing

Screen Time Effects on Brain Development

The increased use of screen time with young children is concerning and its negative effects are well publicized.  The effects are detrimental to a young child’s brain and nervous system and overall development.  Finding screen time alternatives are SO important for kids!

Screen Time

Our world is progressing.  Technology is increasing and we have to keep up, right?  Sure.  But with limits

Increased screen time is an issue for kids of all ages but it’s especially detrimental to a young child’s developing brain. 

SCREEN time includes: televisions, computers, tablets, and cell phones.

Studies have shown negative impacts of screen use on child development.  It affects learning, sensory integration, sleep, attention / behavior, and communication / social skills.  

It impacts visual perceptual development, emotional skills as well as motor skills and creativity. 

Screen Use is Everywhere

Screen Time Effects on Brain Development in Kids

Screens are no longer just at home…

What’ve you seen when you’re out? Babies, toddlers and children mesmerized with a screen in the car, at the grocery store, at a sporting event, at a restaurant! 

Tweens and teens staring at screens on the bus, when hanging out, during every ounce of down time. 

Adults… role modeling the use of a screen at home and in the community! 

From a parent perspective, it turns into a convenient and easy way to entertain, pacify, avoid a meltdown, get your child to eat, etc.  I get it… I’m guilty of allowing too much of it at times with my kiddos.

However, it’s important to step back and ask: Does your child really NEED the screen?!

Or, are they getting used to having it all the time. Is a bad habit being created?

Children were raised for centuries without screens.  They learned to be patient, listen, behave, eat, and occupy their time with independent play.   

So they really don’t need all of this extra screen time. Their bodies need to move and to play! Countless skills are developed using the body during play.  New discoveries are made!

Play is a child’s occupation…  their “work”!! 

As a pediatric occupational therapist, I especially value the importance of play and hands on learning.

I’d love to see more parents (and schools) shift away from the extra screen use. More hands on learning should be our focus for all kiddos. Especially when you think about what that screen is doing to the brain… And how it impacts development…

Impact of Screen Time on a Child’s Brain Development

1) Cognitive Development

Young brains develop very rapidly – they need real, hands on play opportunities.  The earlier years are critical for creating a strong foundation in the brain. 

Play begins the process of lifelong learning for the brain. 

It starts and strengthens essential pathways in the brain – just like strong, balanced branches of a tree begin to grow. 

A study in JAMA pediatrics in November 2019 showed screen time being linked to reduced brain development in children.  MRI’s revealed  learning / development SLOWED down from more than the recommended screen time. 

Many parents have told me that the videos their toddler watches are ‘educational’.  Some can be – BUT a child’s day is full of even better learning opportunities! 

A child’s brain learns best through play!  Textures, shapes, using the hands / eyes, building, creating. 

Hands on problem solving!  Self-initiated play activities!

There are numerous opportunities to replace screen time by playing background music – incorporating counting, colors, letters, rhymes, etc throughout daily routines. 

This provides a MUCH better foundation for your child!

2) Sensory Processing / Self-regulation / Sleep

Screen Time Alternatives Children

Our nervous systems are so complex – our brains are constantly taking in and processing information inside and outside of our bodies at rapid speeds. 

Years ago, I read a few studies that discussed how radiation from cell towers / phones is interfering with a bee’s ability to find its way back to its hive. 

Another study discussed the thickness of an adult’s skull – how it can block and filter some of the radiation around us. 

Babies and toddlers have MUCH THINNER skulls and their ear canals are smaller… they can’t filter the radiation to protect their RAPIDLY developing brain.  That’s scary!

So much of the intricate nervous system is developing in the early years.  And it’s such a sensitive system. 

Connections are forming from these early experiences.  These connections lay the foundation for higher level learning.  (The Pyramid of Learning)

It doesn’t seem worth it to have a screen close to a little brain, or even near a pregnant mother’s belly. 

Many studies have also focused on the impact of screens on self-regulation and sleep.  When working in the homes with families, I had so many parents who allowed their toddlers to use a tablet or device as part of the bedtime routine. 

These toddlers were also not sleeping well and had sensory processing challenges.

It was a very difficult habit to break – it was difficult for them to transition to books before bed but it was so helpful and worth it!

Substituting physical activity with screen time during the day also helped make bedtime routines smoother. 

It’s not worth the interference with a screen, especially before bed when the brain and nervous system need to wind down and rest.

3) Attention / Behavior

If a child gets too dependent on screens – “real world” play becomes boring for them.  It’s too slow.  It lacks excitement!

Children hyper-focus on a show or video and lose total awareness of what’s happening in the world around them. 

They can’t attend to people.  They have difficulty following directions.  Studies have discussed the impact of screen use on attention and even the ability to think clearly.

Children start to have difficulty behaving well without a screen.  Or, they don’t know what to do without it!  They’ve become addicted at an early age!

Too much screen time impacts a child’s mood.  It’s sedentary / mindless time and does not give the child’s body and nervous system the sensory input and movement it needs. 

It also gives instant gratification – children get to watch a show, video or hear a song the second they want it – it’s immediately available.  What happened to looking forward to a Saturday morning cartoon?! 

Instant gratification impacts their ability to wait and be patient.  Important life skills!

4) Communication / Social Skills

Children may learn some language concepts via an app – but language is embedded into a child’s entire day! 

Studies are showing an increase in language delays in children who spend more time with screens! 

A language-rich environment includes a parent speaking to their child in full sentences as a baby.  A newborn will look at a caregiver and “talk” back and forth through cooing and smiling. 

With face to face and give and take interactions, children learn non-verbal cues from a young age.  They are tuned into and pick up on facial expressions and body language.

Making eye contact and having conversations with your child builds a strong foundation for communication skills.  They watch, hear, listen, and learn language. 

Language development continues to develop through books, rhymes, singing, reading, playing music, and conversing.

5) Emotional Development

We are human beings.  We are meant to connect with other people.  Children, especially, need the emotional connection with a caregiver.  They need to know they are important, loved and valued.

They need security, happiness and joy!

Several studies in pediatric journals around the globe have discussed correlations of screen use with depression and anxiety in children (as well as sleep problems and obesity.) 

Children need attention from a caregiver, not entertainment from a screen.   As a parent, you are their first source of enjoyment and comfort.  Keep it that way! 

Try to avoid being on your screen when feeding your young child and playing with your child.  Be a good role model, be emotionally connected to your child!  They need you the most!

6) Visual Development and Visual-Perceptual Skills

Our visual systems are very complex.  A child’s eyes need to take in information near and far, at different speeds and in various locations. 

Blue light is everywhere – it comes from the sun and is naturally alerting for our nervous systems.  But blue light from screens causes strain to the eyes and can lead to damage.

Excessive screen use can cause the visual system to become overstimulated – it’s constant input for the eyes at rapid speeds.  Too much input for one area of the brain can create imbalances. 

Screen Time Alternatives Perceptual Activities for Kids

Hands on play is really important for brain development!!

Gently sliding a finger across a screen to approximately match a shape to its outline on a screen is not the same as…

…holding a wooden shape with the tips of the fingers… with the arm suspended against gravity in the air… while having to problem solve and turn and position the forearm, wrist and fingertips in order to get the shape to fit accurately. 

Big difference!  You can see which scenario is activating more parts of the brain!

Children need to develop their perceptual skills through hands on play in order to learn about an object’s form, size, shape and when learning about distance and depth perception. 

These are building blocks for pre-reading and pre-math skills. 

7) Motor Development

Pediatricians are concerned regarding screen time and its correlation to obesity and habitual sedentary play. 

Sitting in one position for extended periods of time does not help all of the muscles in the body develop against gravity. 

A “coordination” game on a screen is not the same as developing true eye-hand coordination. 

A child’s brain gains much more from coordinating various parts of the body at the same time. Which activates more parts of the brain.

They gain important gross motor skills from throwing or rolling a ball to a target, kicking a ball, climbing a structure, jumping on a target, balancing on a curb, riding a bike on a path, etc.

A body in motion tends to stay in motion, right!  Good habits start early.  Encourage physical and outdoor play, as well as getting dirty!

8) Fine Motor / Creativity

Are we being mindful, creative and unique beings – if we are watching someone else play with toys or play a game on YouTube?!   

It baffles me how this is entertaining for young ones!  Sadly, I’ve had to stop my own son from doing this!  

We are born with opposable thumbs – meant to grasp, hold and manipulate objects opposite of the other fingers.  The thumb does not develop and stabilize if it’s held in toward the palm (on a device or video game controller.)

Pretend play and creativity is so important for brain development. Encourage your child to use their own hands and thoughts to…

…build a design with wooden blocks or legos, paint or draw a picture, dress up / role play, mold playdoh, set-up a dollhouse…

…play with characters or toy animals, finger paint, use boxes to create a fort, make a craft, make a small garden, make and decorate a snack or dessert.

The possibilities are endless!!

Assessing Your Child’s Screen Time Use

As a mother of three, I get it!  Parenting is not easy.  It’s challenging at various phases.  

It takes time, patience, and energy. 

And being consistent is challenging.  It’s sometimes easier to give in!  But when it comes to technology and screen use, you must put your foot down!

If you’re finding that you’re exhausted as a parent and resorting to screens for a break – check when and why you’re using it.  Please consider the impact that it can have on so many areas of your child’s brain development. 

Also, step back and assess who’s training who / who’s in charge?!  Children are really good – at any age – at testing and pushing their caregivers until they get what they want! 

Toddlers, especially, like to be in control of their world.  Naturally, they feel that they’re the center of the universe at this age! 

It’s important to stop and think about your child’s need for screen time, or even your need for your child to have the screen.

Will they really only eat their dinner if their favorite show is on?  Do they really need a show in the car for a short trip? 

Is the screen really the only way your child will learn to behave in the grocery cart, restaurant, doctor’s office?

Or are they simply just used to getting it? 

Screen Time Recommendations

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics have similar recommendations regarding screen time / digital media use: 

  • No screen time (or limited – but none is best!) until the age of two  
  • Video chatting with family members after 18 months is permitted; this can encourage back and forth communication
  • Between 2 and 4/5: one hour at a time of screen time per day with other periods of sedentary play (without a screen)
  • During screen time, interactive time with your child is encouraged (watch a show with them, talk about it)
  • Reading books and/or story telling with a caregiver each day for a one year old is encouraged
  • Specific amounts of active / physical play is encouraged
  • Adequate amounts of sleep

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a family media plan and guide to help create media rules for the home for various age groups.    

Help Reduce Screen Use!

SIGH.  Sorry… this is a bit of a soap box for me!  Can you tell I’m a little passionate about child development?!

Can you tell that I would LOVE to see a giant decrease in screen use in children?! 

PLEASE, share this with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, expectant parents, childcare workers… and encourage them to also pass it along!

We need a societal effort to change this!  Our young children will greatly benefit from turning away from the screen and interacting with people and the world around them! 

Reduce Screen Use with These Activities:

Outdoor Brain Breaks for Kids, Recess Activities
Skill Building Outdoor Games for Kids at School – work on skills for learning through gross motor play!
Creative Art Projects for Kids Fine Motor Activities
Art Projects for Kids – Support Reading, Writing and Math Skills – improve skills for school during art projects and play
visual perceptual games
Best Educational Toys and Games for Kids 5-10+ – Cool toys and games, approved by an OT’s kids and students!

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School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 21 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

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