Why all the worry about screen time for toddlers? We have all been there – you show your 2-year-old a real photograph of someone and their little finger try to “swipe” across the sreen. Everyone laugh because it is really cute, but this actually indicates a developmental problem in the making.
Screen time creates a need for instant gratification in toddlers, whose little brains are developing at a rapid rate. Any changes in this time have the potential to cause long term damage.
Here’s everything you need to know about screen time for your toddlers.
The Dopamine response
You are probably already starting to feel despondent. Because nothing keeps them busy and occupied like plunking them in front of the tablet or television. In fact, letting their children watch television is many parents’ main coping mechanism.
So why all the worry about screen time for toddlers? Every finger swipe elicits a response of colours, sounds and shapes instantly. The child’s brain responds with dumping dopamine into their system. Dopamine is the key component in our reward system that makes us feel pleasure.
Dopamine is addictive. Have you ever tried to take a tablet/phone away from a two-year-old? It’s not met with the kindest of reactions. This is because dopamine stops getting produced in the brain and there is no immediate response to stimuli. The world becomes boring and slooooow. Your toddler was surfing the wave of instant gratification that a screen can provide, and they now struggle to readjust to “real” life again.
Screen time and social development
When a child under the age of three years old spends too much time in front of a screen their social development becomes stunted. In some cases these changes cannot be reversed. The first three years of life is a critical time for social development. During this time period the changes that happen in the brain become the permanent foundation on which all brain development is based.
Children need experiences from the “real” world and not from a screen. The brain’s frontal lobe is responsible for social interactions – both communicated and non-verbal communication such as facial expressions, the tone of someone’s’ voice or the instinctive way in which you read a situation which adds depth to all relationships. The frontal lobe develops during the critical period between birth and 3 years of age, so if your child is in front of a screen for extended periods of time, they are missing out on developing relationships with people – playing, talking and interacting with real people. The effects of this may last forever.
Screen time and sleep
Screens also have a disastrous effect on melatonin production at night. The pineal gland in the brain starts to produce melatonin a few hours before bedtime and reaches its peak in the middle of the night. Melatonin is what makes us sleep well and restful, and we wake up feeling good. Unfortunately putting a screen in front of your toddler at the crucial time of melatonin production (5-7pm) will in fact do the opposite and destroy the melatonin that is being produced. In place of melatonin, cortisol will be produced.
Often parents talk about a “second wind” that happens at around bedtime – this is due to a lack of melatonin in the body. Melatonin is our helping hand at night and using a screen in the crucial hours that it is being produced is counter-intuitive to better sleep. The blue light that is emitted from a screen is of a shorter wavelength than the red or yellow spectrum and stimulates the brain, reducing melatonin in the process.
Poor sleep from a lack of melatonin results in behavioral issues and can suppress their immune system. If your toddler is constantly getting sick this winter, check on how much screen time they are exposed to in the early evenings.
Finding the balance
Screens are not all bad and they have their purpose in this world of technology. It is important to introduce your toddler to technology but limit its use. Children under the age of 2 years old should have ZERO screen exposure unless it is for a video call with a loved one. It should be kept brief and should preferably not be just before bedtime. Children from the age of 3 years old may watch a screen for a maximum of 1 hour a day.
Instead of switching on a screen to distract your toddler during dinner time, rather show them a book or make up a dance that the whole family does when your toddler eats well. Put on some music, draw on a white board, and get creative. Be sure to instill a culture of “no screen time” at meals. This will also give the benefit of better-quality sleep for the whole family!
The World Health Organization set the following guidelines for screen time for toddlers:
- Before 2 years: Sedentary screen time is not recommended
- Toddlers 2 – 3 years: No more than 1 hour of sedentary screen time – less is better.
- Preschoolers (3 – 4 years): No more than 1 hour of sedentary screen time – less is better.
If you can find the balance you need not worry so much about the effects of screen time on your toddler.
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