Contributor: Sara Lappe, MD
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Have you ever watched a baby stare at a TV? The TV is huge, flashing and mesmerizing, and you’ll notice that while watching, infants do not turn their heads — they just sit and stare straight ahead.
Because infants become so transfixed on the screen, they stop doing anything and everything else and ultimately, they miss out on human interaction and the opportunity to explore their new and exciting world.
The same is true of certain electronic toys. The graphics and sounds are mesmerizing and hold a child’s attention for longer than a traditional toy. Studies have shown that during the time kids are watching a screen or playing on an electronic toy, they are not interacting and learning as much as they could with other types of toys.
Electronics also change how we interact with our children – sometimes the toy becomes the babysitter, and parents do not have to interact.
According to updated media guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 2 years need hands-on exploration and social interaction to develop cognitive, language, motor and social-emotional skills — all of which they cannot learn from digital media.
In addition, multiple developmental and health concerns continue to exist for kids using electronics to an excess. This doesn’t mean that all electronics are bad for children; it simply means parents have to better navigate the digital world for their little ones.
Here are some do’s and don’ts that can help:
- Video chat: Video chat applications such as FaceTime and Skype are OK for children.
- Set a time limit: If you’re going to use electronics with your child, do so for no more than 30 minutes at a time and no more than one hour total per day between ages 2 to 5 years.
- Choose educational or interactive games: Many products marketed as educational have been shown to have negative influences on learning and development. You can check whether a game or app is really what it says it is on commonsensemedia.org.
- Opt for a slower pace: Choose games that are slow-paced, so the child has time to think and interact with the games or toys.
- Avoid mindless TV time: Television is the worst of the electronic media. There is no interaction, and studies have repeatedly shown an increase in attention problems with increasing TV time.
- No screens under age 2: Children younger than 24 months should still have as little time as possible with screens, particularly television.
- Shut down at night: Turn all screens off at least an hour before bed.
- No-screen zone: Screens should stay out of the bedroom. Televisions and portable screens such as tablets and phones should be stored out of the room at night.
The electronics-heavy holiday season
Speaking of electronics, holiday time is around the corner, and the stores are filling with the latest and greatest toys. Many of the toys marketed to very young children are electronic toys with captivating flashing lights and catchy sounds.
Many of our traditional toys have been turned into electronic toys to bring them into the new millennium. As the holiday season approaches, try to minimize electronic gifts and focus more on hands-on experiences.
Tips for holiday season gifts
- Go low-tech: The perk of a low-tech gift is that you won’t have to charge it or buy batteries. Find something the entire family can enjoy together. Choose a board game that everyone might enjoy. If you absolutely can’t stay away from electronics, pick a movie for family movie night or an interactive game.
- Buy books: Traditional paper books and electronic books are both OK. If you’re purchasing an electronic book or tablet, stay away from those that have all the bells and whistles. Instead, opt for a tablet or book that mimics the traditional reading experience. The extras can distract and impair some reading comprehension and attention. If children get accustomed to books that have distractions, they have a hard time finding a plain book interesting, which can make school a challenge. It’s also important to read the book with your child and have a dialog about what is happening in the story.
- Focus on experiences: Instead of becoming fixated on what toy to buy, focus on family experiences and outings – like craft time, ice skating, sledding, cooking together or whatever your family enjoys doing over the holiday season. These experiences will bring your family closer together and create long-lasting memories.
- Avoid temptation: Don’t be afraid of making your toddler upset or angry by not giving him or her the latest and greatest electronic toy or tablet. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, famously didn’t allow his children to own iPads — and significantly restricted their screen time.
Every family is different and needs to work together to set its own rules and limits. To help navigate through an electronics-heavy holiday season, create a family media plan here.
And remember: The holiday season is about spending time with loved ones, so try and unplug and spend quality time with one another. Enjoying each other’s company — whether it’s in a low-key or active setting — will benefit the mind and body.
This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.