Why Are Screens Bad for Babies 0 to 2?

Toddler on a smartphone
Exposing your infant to screens too early disrupts their growing ability to read and interpret faces - a key element to their developing social skills.

These days, we hear a lot about screen time. Most of us, for example, have probably heard that child development experts strongly caution against screen exposure for newborns and babies.

But they don’t just suggest limiting exposure. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines say that babies up to the age of 18 months have no screen exposure at all, and only limited, guided interactions with parents from 18 months to 2 years. The lone exception to this guideline is video chats with family or caregivers that the infant recognizes.

But what are the reasons for such strict limits?

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made … And Still Growing!

Many of us are likely very familiar with a beautiful description of God’s creative grandeur at work in the formation of every single person. In Psalm 139:13-14 we find this description of our heavenly Father’s intimate familiarity with us: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

What a remarkable picture of the profound sanctity of every person alive. And several thousand years after those words were penned, we now know that some of that “knitting” continues at a rapid pace even after a child is born.

A newborn’s brain is forging incredible connections during those first two years of life. A baby’s five senses process new stimuli constantly, with the synapses and neural pathways in the brain growing and expanding rapidly in those first few years. In fact, a baby’s brain is roughly half the size of an adult brain at birth, but by age 3, it’s 80% the size of an adult’s brain, and 90% by age 5.

We Interrupt This Program …

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that when a tiny infant sees a screen, those marvelously flickering pixels easily attract all of his or her attention. That kind of digital pacifier might seem like a godsend to a harried and tired mother desperate for a respite. But in reality, a screen’s effect on such a tiny person is to interrupt and interfere with the important neural development that’s happening there, as well as slowing emotional and relational development.

Screen time at that age interrupts a baby’s growing ability to read and interpret faces and develop initial social skills. Harvard neuroscientist Charles Nelson says, “Until babies develop language, all communication is non-verbal, so they depend heavily on looking at a face and deriving meaning from that face. Is this person happy with me, or are they upset at me?”

Carlota Nelson, writer and director of the documentary Brain Matters, adds, “Research has shown that screen time inhibits young children’s ability to read faces and learn social skills, two key factors needed to develop empathy. Face-to-face interactions are the only way young children learn to understand non-verbal cues and interpret them. … Exposure to screens reduces babies’ ability to read human emotion and control their frustration.”

Looked at that way, it’s not hard to see how screens might blunt this process of development. So even though it might be tempting to calm down a screaming infant down with a mesmerizing screen, doing that frequently may well have long-term development consequences.

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