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Screen Time Before 3 Can Have Lifelong Effects

Photograph by Twenty20

Nowadays, it's practically impossible to follow the "no screen time for kids before 2" rule that the AAP recommends. And while pediatricians may have become more lax in their recommendations as the omnipresent iPad years go on, a new post from Psychology Today suggests that allowing kids to use screens from birth to age three—when the brain is most sensitive to the environment around it—can lead to changes in the brain that can last a lifetime.

Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, tells Psychology Today, that electronic devices are “the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed.”

The brain's frontal lobe—the part that allows us to figure out social interactions—starts to develop in early childhood and, obviously, requires real human interaction. This crucial juncture in brain development can be compromised if instead of interacting with people and learning how to decode social cues, a child is interacting with a non-reacting screen instead to the point that "his empathetic abilities ... will be dulled, possibly for good." This damage could lead to trouble later in life creating and keeping relationships.

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And what parents hasn't simultaneously been impressed by and slightly horrified by the ease with which their toddler learns to swipe a screen to see the next picture? Apparently having young children getting used to such an immediate effect teaches them that everything can be—and must be—instantly gratifying. This feeling of instant gratification is far more easily attained through smart devices than actual human interactions, which can become a preference that will last a lifetime.

Now this doesn't mean all screens are evil. There are definitely some benefits to many of the educational apps available on smartphones and tablets. Even the AAP now recommends that "parents establish 'screen-free' zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children's bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies and using their imaginations in free play."

And that's something we can all get behind.

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