Child Development Limit Setting Screen Time

Screentime and babies don’t mix well: The reasons why.

Screentime and babies don’t mix well: The reasons why.

Screens are all around us. We depend on them. We enjoy them. Therefore the set of limits and guidelines from American Academy of Pediatrics can be hard for parents to follow. Those recommendations are “For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing. Here is the link in case you are interested. The limits and other issues to consider about screen depend entirely on the age of your child. In this blog I will just discuss screen time for infants and toddlers. In other blogs I will discuss screen time with older children.

Knowing the guidelines is the easy part. Following the guidelines is the hard part. There are 2 areas of difficulty for parents. (1) Limiting their own use of screen time. (2) Dealing with the tears and conflict that arise when a parent puts a limit on the screen time.

The truth is that limits on your baby mean limits on yourself. How much your baby can be exposed to screen time will deprive you the parent of time you want to spend relaxing perhaps and watching the news, or sports on TV, or checking your email, or looking at Facebook during the time your baby is awake. It means that parents have to not let their infants and toddlers play with their cell phones- even though the child looks so cute doing it, or because when the baby is so focused on the phone it gives the parent a few minutes of time relaxing, chatting with friends or getting some work done. And when some screen time is introduced, it means you have to be closely involved in the process; talking to them about what is going on. So NO screen time, except for video chat, under age 18 months, means that parents have to hold their own screen time in check. And after that, you have to spend the time sitting with them, while you watch together.

The main reason for limiting screen time so much for babies is that the brain is actively growing many of the circuits that will support their social-emotional development for life. The input that the brain needs during this period is 100% about social-emotional interaction with parents and other caretakers. Not just any old kind of social-emotional input will do. The specific social-emotional interactions that a baby needs as they development from birth-3 are:

  • Soothing and protective (I’m here with you to keep you safe and calm);
  • Connection and companionship (We are in this together)
  • Reciprocal and enjoyable (I smile you smile; I giggle you giggle)
  • Responsive to where the baby is ‘at’ (I know you feel sad; You didn’t like those mashed peas did you?)
  • Socially engaged (Let’s cooperate; Let’s take turns).

These inputs get incorporated into the wiring of the baby’s brain and serve to support all future development including exploration and discovery of their surroundings, language acquisition, cognitive skills, and social peer relationships. That is what the parent-child relationship is all about during these early years.

What happens when a baby receives screen time? It is like wasted calories. It is food with no nutritional value. Screens are not protective, connected, reciprocal, responsive nor socially engaged. And the brain neurotransmitters, like the dopamine reward centers get hijacked to want to watch screens at the expense of relationships, calming, and exploration.

These critical social-emotional skills need lots of time– slowed down, unhurried, person-to-person time. Screens, whether you are using them, or they are using them, can rob of them of the precious time they need to accomplish these tasks. Screen time during this age period unfortunately introduces not only overstimulation but also the wrong kinds of stimulation- because it is not in tune with the baby’s emotions and intentions. Therefore it does not teach them any of the critical social-emotional skills they must acquire at this age, and can actually interfere with the comforting companionship, playful socializing and impulse inhibition they do need from their parents. When they get the right kinds of inputs their brains lay down the right kind of wiring.

Confidence builds Motivation and Competence We know that parents of young children are willing to make the extra sacrifices and put in extra effort if it means keeping their child healthy. The conclusive results are in. Limits on screen time are healthier for kids’ social-emotional development and brain development. The belief that you are doing a really good thing by limiting screen time so much at a young age, hopefully will help motivate you to do it and help you feel more resilient in the face of their complaining and protesting. Hold this in mind the next time you find yourself having a hard time resisting flipping on the TV when you come home after a stressful day at work or letting your 1 year old play with your cell phone, when want to read the paper in peace at Starbucks.

Don’t worry you don’t have to be perfect at this. I am sure many babies were watching the recent election results and not being harmed for life in any way. But the more you can protect them from the wrong kind of stimulation for their age, the better they will do in the long run of life.

Trust me, you are human and you will find times you just can’t control yourself from watching TV with your baby in the room, or you will cave in to their demands to play on your cell phone. Don’t chastise yourself harshly. But use these ideas to support your further resolve on setting the age appropriate limits your child needs.



As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, I have been in private practice for over 35 years, with a special interest in parents and couples.


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