". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Screen Time and the Battle for Your Child’s Mind

February 5, 2023

Any tool can be misused. A hammer can construct or kill. An electrical wire can give instant light or, if mishandled, bring sudden death.

So it is with computers and televisions. They are valuable and helpful but also potentially dangerous. So, when children use “screens,” parents need to be extra vigilant. One reason is the predatory nature of some of the internet’s more evil components, like pornography or horribly violent images, and the rot that’s on both network and cable TV.

Another reason relates to a child’s development. A new study by the Journal of the American Medical Society-Pediatrics indicates that in children ages two and under, “electrocortical activity in the frontocentral and parietal brain regions mediated the association between infant screen use and later executive function impairments.” Put into everyday English, this means that allowing “infants [to] watch tablets and TV” likely impairs “academic achievement and emotional well-being later on.”

One of the key findings of the study, which evaluated children at ages one, 18 months, and nine years, is that early and extensive exposure to screens leads to weaker “executive function” in children as they mature. According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, “Executive function and self-regulation skills” — also called “high-order cognitive skills” — are “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” The JAMA-Pediatrics study also concludes that “every hour of increased screen time in infancy was associated with decreased measures of attention and executive functioning at age nine.”

In other words, an infant and then toddler whose brain is shaped by watching the instantly changing millions of pixels on a screen is less likely to thrive in school. Learning will be made more difficult by a young lifetime of passive engagement with the endless flow of sudden changes and colors and shapes running before her eyes. Contemplation and reasoned thinking become more difficult than they otherwise need to be.

Additionally, emotional development can also be stunted when parents park their children in front of screens. Children need parental engagement, not distracting entertainment.

Full disclosure: I remember the days when my children were small and how welcome “Veggie Tales” became to my wife and me after a day or evening dealing with highly active twins. I understand the desire and even need for some down-time.

The operative word, though, is some — really, even occasional. “Child-adult relationships that are responsive and attentive — with lots of back and forth interactions — build a strong foundation in a child’s brain for all future learning and development,” notes Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. Emotional wellness in a child is “the developing capacity of children (birth through age eight) to: experience, regulate, and express emotion; form close, secure, interpersonal relationships; and explore the environment and learn — all in the cultural context of family and community,” according to Pennsylvania State University. “Before children learn their letters, numbers, or how to share, they must experience positive, nurturing interactions to support future academic success and future healthy development.”

In other words, there is no substitute for consistent interaction between a little one and his or her mom and dad. As Jennifer Palmer, an early childhood policy specialist with the National Council of State Legislatures, writes, “Healthy social and emotional development is rooted in nurturing and responsive relationships with family members and other caregivers, including those who provide care in early learning settings.”

Christians know that the essential duty of “caregiving” falls to two people — a mom and a dad who give of their hearts, minds, and time to their children. This is the ideal, at least, one that single parents and others whose family lives are more difficult can find hard to achieve. They need the active support of a loving church family, committed friends and surrogate grandparents who come alongside and enter into their lives to help.

But for those bonded in the covenant of one-man, one-woman marriage and who have been blessed with children, the two greatest gifts they can give their kids are the knowledge of Jesus Christ and their time. Time invested in all the events of a family’s life — running and cuddling, playing and reading, traveling to the store or going on a big family outing.

Much of this comes down to our own priorities as followers of Jesus. As pastor and theologian R. Kent Hughes has written, parents “must make sure that [we] open book of our lives” to our children, since “our example demonstrates the reality of our instruction, for in watching us they will learn the most.” To model Christian living before our children, we ourselves must be spending time with our own Heavenly Father. There can be no time more well spent.

Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.