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Mel Gravely

Screen Time and Young Children: A Guide for Head Start Educators

It’s three weeks into the new year. Time for a reality check. How are you doing on your new year’s resolutions?

Did you resolve to lose weight, save money, or exercise more? Those three have long topped surveys of Americans that make resolutions. However, there’s one growing resolution that is a distinctly more modern problem: reduce screen time.

In the U.S., adults are spending an average of seven hours a day on screens. While this includes time at work, about half of that time includes mobile phone usage, including social media. We’re on screens so much, it might be reshaping our eyeballs.

Screen time. Even the mention of it can send parents into a sort of fight or flight mode. They have so many questions, and can be confused by the vast amount of information available (ironically, a lot of information comes from social media). Are my kids getting too much screen time? Is there a difference between TV and phones? Is there such a thing as quality screen time? Should I NEVER allow my kids to have screen time? How does it affect my child’s behavior? How else am I supposed to get anything done?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, screen time for young children increased dramatically, particularly for low-income children. One small study showed that daily average screen time for kindergartners soared to more than six hours a day, twice what it was before the pandemic.

It makes sense. Kids were stuck at home and away from school or daycare for months at a time. Caregivers would have been desperate for ways to occupy their children’s time while they worked. The concern for many in the early childhood development field, is that those children have become accustomed to a new normal, which includes far more screen time than before, and the long-term consequences could be significant.

As Head Start educators, it’s our job to focus on the whole child. That means doing what we can to aid a child’s mental and emotional development and well-being. We can help educate parents on ways to nurture their child and provide the best possible experience for them in a world where screens are ubiquitous and seemingly inescapable.

First, let’s hear from the experts.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends a tiered system for screen time based on the age of the child. For children under 18 months, they recommend no screen time beside video chatting. For children 18-24 months, if a parent wants to introduce digital media, the AAP recommends a limited amount of high-quality educational content, but only while a caregiver watches and engages with them. Over two years old, one hour a day max is recommended, again with co-viewing as much as possible. For ages six and over, AAP recommends using discretion to limit screen time where appropriate, while again, keeping a close eye on the content.

But these recommendations don’t necessarily answer the “Why” question. Why does the AAP recommend no screens before 18 months with limited screen time after that?

There has been a vast array of research released over the past several years that show associations between screen time for young children and poor developmental outcomes. For example, one study showed that an increase in screen time and a reduction in child-caregiver interaction for young babies correlated into an increase of autism-like symptoms later in childhood. Other studies showed increases in sensory-processing disorders, as well as decreases in age-appropriate communication, problem-solving, and motor skills.

However, before we move to condemn all screen time we need to understand that the data isn’t 100% conclusive. A widely-reported study from Japan released last August, showed increased screen time exposure at age one lead to some developmental delays in communication and problem-solving at ages two and four. What many media outlets failed to report, however, is that the study doesn’t answer the question on whether the association continues as the child ages. It also didn’t show negative associations between screen time and other areas of child development, such as motor skills and social skills that other studies had found.

In “How Much Does Screen Time Really Affect Child Development,” some academics are quick to expose some of the faults with research on screen time.

“The latest research… is still young, lacking consistency in findings, and rife with misinterpretation,” the article quotes one researcher as saying.

For example, these studies often rely on self-reported data of screen time usage, which could be unreliable. Also, many studies admit that it is often not clear whether screen time increases the chances of delayed development OR if delayed development increases use of screen time. It’s not unreasonable to think that a parent who is struggling with their child’s behavior and/or development might resort to extra screen time. It’s the chicken or the egg. Which came first?

Lastly, these studies don’t even begin to answer these questions for children who grew up during the pandemic. Academic research is long and time-consuming. For example, the study from Japan released just last year was analyzing data from 2013-2017. It’ll take years before we analyze the data collected on pandemic-era children.

Ok. So that’s what the experts say. Now let’s listen to what educators and parents are saying. For that, we turned to (ahem) social media.

We scrolled through some of the comments on a 2023 Facebook post from CNN titled “Your child’s academic success may start with their screen time as infants, study says.”

The study they mentioned followed kids from 2010 to 2020, and found that kids whose parents self-reported more screen time in infancy had more problems with executive function at 9 years old.

Some of the commenters applaud the suggestion to reduce screen time.

“Teachers have known this for a long time now,” one user commented.

“It’s too much stimulation anyone who knows basic early childhood development knows this,” another wrote.

One user who identified as a teacher, agreed. “We are now seeing children who spent endless hours on screens, over the past three years. Language delays and social delays are rampant.”

However, these comments were overshadowed by the majority of comments that were skeptical of the research and said it was all about striking a balance.

“With our society becoming so technically advanced and dependent we need to allow all types of exploration for kids, including how to use tablets and screens responsibly and having good habits instilled. If you completely restrict something, how will they learn the rights and wrongs?” one user wrote.

“Might as well just ignore all recommendations because the latest I saw before this said that the amount of screen time didn’t matter and what matters was the quality and content of that time. It’s almost like… all these studies… aren’t really conclusive… because they don’t actually know,” another user said.

Some even outright said it was helping their kids.

“While I do limit screen time to promote socialization, it has actually helped my son. He had some trouble with speech and besides speech therapy and preschool, watching certain videos has vastly improved his vocabulary,” one parent wrote.

Some said that with lack of support they had no other choice.

One user snarkily replied, “Researchers are welcome to come watch my twins while I make breakfast or sit down for 15 minutes to drink some coffee.”

Another user was more succinct. “Proposed solution: Make childcare affordable.”

Bottom line is that research shows that increased screen time most likely does affect development. However, what it doesn’t answer is the more complicated questions of context and content.

In our opinion, screen time is likely not good or bad, but rather neutral. It is just a tool, and how you use it determines whether it’s good or bad. What we know for sure is that direct engagement between caregiver and child is GOOD. It’s good for children, and it’s good for caregivers. Screen time should never replace that interaction, but should rather supplement it.

For example, let’s say a caregiver needs a break to do chores or even just relax for a moment. They turn on the child’s favorite age and content-appropriate TV show. Midway through they come in and ask what’s happening in the show and sit for a few minutes to watch it together. When it’s over, they talk with the child about what they saw and what they liked about it. Throughout the day, the caregiver can sing songs from the show and continue to talk about what the child saw and learned.

Screens are a part of our lives. They will probably be even more a part of the lives of our children as they grow up. There is no going back. Therefore, as a Head Start educator, one of our top recommendations is to first talk to parents about their own use of screens. Before we dictate to children what they should and shouldn’t do, we need to take a good look in the mirror. Parents and caregivers teach how much screen time is acceptable by example. Adults who develop healthy habits with screen time will model those habits to their children.

We would love to hear your feedback! Do you have any stories about how you see screen time affecting children in your classroom? Do you incorporate any digital media into your teaching? How are you talking with parents about screen time? Leave your comments below!



  1. Janet Eades says:

    What about Hatch where we as early childhood educators are required for the children to use on tablets every day “for learning”. The children walk in with cell phones given by mom and dad.

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