Babies and Screens Don’t Go Together

Moms and dads know in their hearts what's right for their children on this matter — time to do the right thing here

by Meg Meeker, MD | Updated 07 Dec 2017 at 12:33 PM

Every exhausted parent cringes at two small words: screen time. We know we should get control of how and when our kids use screens today, but we feel that doing so is a lost battle. And now we must fight for the youngest in our midst: our babies.

Let’s be honest. Every parent has a love-hate relationship with screens and our kids. We know that when a six-month-old watches Peppa Pig or even a “Wheels on the Bus” video, something negative happens to that tender brain. But letting children, even babies, focus on an entertaining video for a while gives us a break. And we’re tired.

The psychological and neurodevelopment of our babies is serious business — so let’s look at the effects of screens on these.

1.) Screens and babies are a bad mix. Babies’ brains are simple, relative to that of a toddler or preschooler. In the first year of life, neural pathways are being formed and “software” is being created, if you will, on top of their personalities. So what a baby sees and feels while looking at a screen sticks for a long, long time.

2.) “Educational” screen time for babies is a ruse. During the first year of life, a baby learns foundational principles of life that shape his or her perceptions forever. He sees or hears something scary — and because this is one of the first times he’s felt fear, it impacts him deeply. Fear means that life is frightening.

He watches colorful images jump, make loud noises and move faster than his brain can follow, and he perceives the world around him as overwhelming. The stimulation triggers his fight-or-flight response and voila — he experiences genuine anxiety as an infant. Adults can shake off anxiety. Babies can’t.

When a baby stares at a screen, 100 percent of the connectivity with that parent is gone — and the child experiences “life” from a two-dimensional and false world.

3.) Screens take the parent out of baby’s view. Babies learn to trust, love, develop empathy, and understand that they are connected to parents and the world around them by looking at their parents. They study a mother’s face, a father’s movements; they listen to inflections in a parent’s voice, etc. Healthy emotional and psychological development in the first year of life comes through visual, auditory and experiential connectivity with the people they need to keep them alive: their parents.

When a baby stares at a screen, 100 percent of the connectivity with that parent is gone — and the child experiences “life” from a two-dimensional and false world.

4.) Screens separate baby and parent. Here’s the big, bad news: What you do on your screens in front of your babies hurts them, too. Whether they focus on a screen or you stare intensely into your own phone or computer, you are not available to your child. This matters far less to you than to your child because you don’t rely on him or her to meet your needs. The child, on the other hand, relies completely on Mom or Dad to have all needs met. A screen between parent and baby keeps the parent from being “present” to the little one.

Related: Best Gift to Your Kids Isn’t What You Think

5.) Screens train a baby to look away from the parent’s face. Eye contact with parents is extremely important for a baby, for several reasons.

First, babies “read” your eyes and body language for clues about what you think and feel about them. Then, they take those clues and subconsciously integrate them into their developing identity. If they gather positive information about their importance to you, they learn to believe they are significant. If they feel ignored, they learn they don’t matter.

Second, it is critical for children to be trained to make eye contact with those around them. Eye contact with another communicates respect for the listener as well as the communicator. So if you want your child to have healthy self-esteem and good relationships with others, teaching your child to make eye contact with others is crucial. Screens train children that eye contact is irrelevant.

Related: Three Ways to Help Your Spouse Become a Better Parent

So how do we parents, with numerous screens and a baby or two in the home, conquer the screen beast?

The answer is really simple, but hard. Here’s the good news: Making strict rules about screen time and your baby renders huge rewards.

And the more you practice, the easier it gets. Here’s what you can do.

    • Replace screens with audio. If you want your baby distracted because you need a break, turn on great music — just ditch the video portion. Classical music, fun kids music, and soothing noises can actually be good for your baby’s brain development.
    • Get tough with yourself on your own screen habits. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to keep screens away from your baby once you experience how much better you feel when you spend less time with your screen. Your anxiety dissipates; less stimulation hits you over the head — and when you discipline yourself to have “on” and “off” screen time and begin feeling better, less stressed, anxious, and overstimulated — you’ll be more motivated to give the same sense of calm to your baby.
    • Quit looking at what your friends do. Mothers in particular feel tremendous peer pressure to parent like their friends, particularly when it comes to activities and screens. Do what you know in your heart is good and right for your baby and I promise, he or she will grow up to be grateful to have had a mom or dad who loved them enough to say “no — this isn’t good for you and I love you enough to fight the hard battle.”
    • If you do allow screen time for your baby — set a timer. If you are in a pinch and cave to giving your baby screen time, don’t allow yourself to let 10, 20 or 30 more minutes go by. Set a clear on and off time.

Parenting babies well isn’t for wimps. Every mother or father reading this knows what is best for their baby right this minute. Turn the screens off and love, play, and be present.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the new book “Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need” (Regnery Publishing, 2017), as well as a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.

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