Expert Insights: Raising young children in a screen-saturated world

Contact: Deanne Puca
A Getty image of a parent on their phone in the background with a young child playing on the grass

Considering the impact of screens on child development is not about evoking guilt on adults or setting unrealistic or specific screen times for children. It's about having a plan for technology use based on research and knowledge of early learning and development.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Going to the grocery store with a three-year-old is not what it used to be. 

When a toddler’s whining, begging and crying starts for items paraded before them row after row, it’s tempting to hand them your phone as a distraction.   

But over time, such decisions can have unintended impacts, says Mindy Holohan, faculty specialist II for the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Holohan

“In the short term, the use of the screen can fend off undesirable behavior,” she says. “But when we regularly rely on screens for behavior management or distraction, young children miss out on opportunities to learn essential skills including development of self-regulation, the ability to delay gratification and how to identify and manage their feelings.” 

According to Holohan, considering the impact of screens on child development is not about evoking guilt on adults or setting unrealistic or specific screen time limits for children. It’s about having a plan for technology use based on research and knowledge of early learning and development. 

“We think in advance about what we’re going to feed our babies, what diapers we are going to use, how their rooms will be set up and even what their education will look like,” she says. “So why don’t we plan for how we will manage and utilize screen technology? So much is so new and the pace of technological change is so fast that parents and practitioners find themselves without existing sets of experiences or knowledge to draw from.” 

Holohan, a certified family life educator with a background in early childhood education, and other experts from across the country in the Screen Time Action Network at Fairplay for Kids, have a plan.

The nonprofit organization’s Early Childhood Work Group has created a free resource collection for families, educators and practitioners with the goals of “prioritizing healthy child development in a screen-saturated world, providing strategies for managing screen use for children and adults and sharing research-based information on impacts of screen technologies and resources for promoting screen awareness at home and in the classroom.” 

The Screen Aware Early Childhood Action Kit for young children from birth to 8 includes: 

  • Printable handouts centered on key topics for families and practitioners.  

  • Signs to promote screen awareness in the classroom and at home. 

  • Sample letters from early childhood centers to families and vice versa, explaining the importance of being screen aware. 

“This project responds to internal and external needs assessments and calls from parents and practitioners saying they are longing for more tools in their toolbox,” says Holohan who co-chairs the work group with Sveta Pais, a Montessori practitioner based in Austin, Texas. “We want to support the cultivation of screen awareness as another layer in what we think about and plan for as parents and as practitioners who serve young children and families.” 

When thinking about screens and early development, it’s not just about the child’s screen time and use but that of their parents’ and caregivers’, she adds. 

“What cues may we be missing when we are on our devices? How can we think about modeling healthy relationships with our own screen technology?” Holohan asks. “There are things we know are fundamental for children and their relationships, such as human contact, responsiveness and interaction, and we want to encourage vigilance on those fronts.

“Our overarching premise is that technologies change, but children’s developmental needs largely do not,” she continues. “We want to encourage thinking and decision-making that considers all realms of early learning and development. Even an educational game or app can be problematic when it displaces interpersonal interactions or the opportunities to explore, play and problem-solve with our whole bodies and all of our senses. It’s as much about what children are not doing when they, or we, are utilizing screens as what they’re engaged with on the screen, especially in the most formative years.”

The action kit includes topical research-based fact sheets focused on children’s developmental needs and the impacts of technology on that growth, as well as corresponding action sheets to support screen technology management in various settings. 

It is not always intuitive, but, luckily, the research is catching up to the technology, says Holohan.  

“It’s a confusing landscape,” she admits. “We know that screens are helpful in our lives, and they’re not going away. We don’t need to vilify them. There’s already plenty of guilt associated with screens. But research shows that they are impacting early learning and development and therefore shouldn’t go unchecked. 

“When we have clear information and new ideas and approaches, we can feel less overwhelmed, back in the driver’s seat and more in control.”

Key questions for managing screen technologies for healthy child development

  • Is a screen really required for this activity? Does screen use achieve an outcome that would not be possible without it? 
  • Which is more active, the technology or the child? 
  • Could this choice increase reliance on screens for emotional or behavioral regulation? 
  • How might my child be experiencing or interpreting my use of screen technologies?
  •  How can I model and discuss healthy screen use habits with my child?