Can Babies Be Addicted to Screens?

Have you ever wondered if your baby is addicted to screens?

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

If taking away the television or handheld screen causes your baby to melt down, your child may be addicted to screens. While babies and toddlers dislike being told no, taking away their screens increases the intensity of their tantrums. They love those devices so much they prefer them over almost everything else. And there lies the problem.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association discovered MRI evidence of physical and worrisome structural changes in the brains of preschool children who watched screens more than two hours per day. The areas of the brain most affected were those controlling working memory, language and communication, and executive function skills.

Working memory is short-term memory, such as recalling mommy saying, “Go to your room and get your shoes.” Executive function skills include paying attention, organizing and planning an activity, remaining focused on a task, and regulating emotions.

During your baby’s early years, they should learn to engage and manage in the real world. They need to communicate using words and gestures, imitate motor actions, listen and follow directions, and express needs and emotions appropriately. Screens interfere with learning those skills because babies disengage with people while on them.

Signs of Screen Addiction in Children

According to 2020 research published in the Journal of the International Child Neurology Association, “Addiction is a term increasingly used to describe the growing number of children engaging in a variety of screen activities in a dependent, problematic manner.”

The keywords in that definition for parents are dependent and problematic.

Does your baby depend on screens to calm down?

Does your baby prefer screen-based apps and videos over other toys, especially books?

Can your baby go to sleep or eat without watching a show?

If your baby prefers or depends upon screens over almost everything else, including you, your child may be on the road to addiction.

What Makes Screens So Addictive?

The developers of screen-based apps, videos, and television know how to maintain a young child’s attention. The secret sauce includes rapidly moving images, bright colors, catchy music, and interactivity.

Babies are visual and love to look at interesting things. You have a child’s undivided attention when you pair colorful moving images with simple songs and melodies. If he can also interact with those images, such as on a touchscreen, he is hooked.

Those rapidly moving images activate a pleasure/reward cycle in your baby’s brain.

Dopamine, a naturally-occurring chemical, is released. This chemical weakens impulse control and increases motivation to keep doing pleasurable activity. This dopamine feedback loop is similar to those seen in the brains of drug users.

Every reward is pleasurable and feels good because dopamine floods the brain. Sadly, the feel-good effect is brief, so your baby keeps playing repeatedly. It is the same for adults who cannot stop watching funny cat videos. They make you feel good, and you have lost track of time before you know it.

The developers of screen-based entertainment know this.

Developers design their products to keep your eyes on the screen. Meanwhile, they gather data about your viewing habits and feed you more of what you already love. It is a vicious cycle that leads to addictive behavior.

What Play Activities Are Screens Replacing?

While babies can learn from educational content on screens, research shows they learn less than parents believe. And there is increased evidence of problems with babies learning from a machine.

One problem is many babies prefer screen-based engagement to real-world interactions. Let’s face it; our everyday lives are less exciting than dancing bears or talking trains. Children become bored with the real world and choose the virtual one. Retreating into a world devoid of human interaction is unhealthy.

Remember, young children learn best from real-world interactions.

Most skills your baby learns during the first three years require moving around the environment and engaging with others. Your child should be actively doing things such as looking at themselves in the mirror, making funny faces and sounds, pushing buttons, flipping switches, dressing and undressing, feeding themselves, scribbling with crayons, and naming objects in a picture book.

Sitting alone watching a screen, they miss learning how to play and communicate with others. Social-emotional, communication, and self-help delays often begin.

The second problem with babies and screen-based learning is the issue of non- transferability. Research shows what a child learns on a screen often does not transfer to the real world. For example, your baby can match colors on an electronic screen. But when asked, “What color is your shirt?” they do not know. Or, your baby matches shapes on the tablet but needs help to complete a shape puzzle. Babies memorize how to get the reward on the electronic game. But often cannot transfer those cognitive skills into the real world.

Yes. Babies Can Be Addicted to Screens

As a pediatric physical therapist, I have discovered most parents are concerned about their child’s screen time but do not know what to do about it. Fortunately, when aware of the problems with screens, most make changes in their baby’s day.

Limiting your baby’s access to screens is the best place to begin. You can create a family media plan using the American Academy of Pediatrics online resource. The next positive change is developing a daily routine that includes spending time together looking at picture books, stacking blocks, tossing balls, taking care of dolls, or playing outside. Old-fashioned toys remain remarkably effective in building real-world skills.

Another thing to do is turn off the television that runs in the background. Make sure the screen is black so your baby sees no moving images. TVs are more of a distraction than parents realize. And as much as possible, parents should put their screens away while engaging with their children. When you look away from your baby to check your phone, you demonstrate— whether intentional or not—that your phone is more important.

While adults require smartphones, tablets, and computers to work and live today, our babies do not need them. They need us. And God has always known that. He instructs us to talk about Him during our comings and goings. In Proverbs 22:6 , He tells us to “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

While those verses refer to spiritual training, I believe God knows all childhood learning, both good and bad, has a lifelong impact. Current research appears to prove the truth of those verses. If a child’s brain can be negatively impacted by excessive screen-watching, then it can be positively affected by immersion in the natural world.

The Virtual World is Merely an Enticing Imitation of Reality

While screens are fun, they are less beautiful and rich than God’s world. Screens draw our babies into a place where they emotionally disengage, become impatient, and struggle with interpersonal communication.

Children need the sensory experiences of nature. Warm sunshine, sticky sand, and the scent of honeysuckle cannot be replicated on a machine.

Get your babies outside in the fresh air as much as possible and interact with them. Remember that nothing learned on a screen is essential for a baby to know. However, everything your child learns in the real world is vital.

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