Babies and screen time: New research calls for caution

A baby alone on its tummy playing with a tablet.
A new study links excessive screen time with differences in brain development and problems with focus and control at school age. (Image: Adobe Stock)

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been there. You have a baby howling for attention, but you need to cook dinner or get a sibling to take a much-needed nap. Baby TV shows, touch tablets, and digital phone toys can feel like lifesavers in keeping an active infant calm and contained while juggling what life brings.

But a new study suggests that too much screen time during infancy may lead to changes in brain activity, as well as problems with executive functioning — the ability to stay focused and control impulses, behaviors, and emotions — in elementary school.

“The infant brain thrives on enriching interactions with the environment, and excessive infant screen time can reduce opportunities for real-world interactions that are important for brain development,” says Dr. Carol Wilkinson, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital who was part of the study. “Especially today, when screens are with us all the time, we need to better support parents in non-screen time tips and tricks to keep infants engaged and parents sane.”

Screen time, brain waves, and attention

In the most comprehensive investigation of its kind, the researchers enrolled pregnant mothers in Singapore and followed more than 400 of their children, from infancy all the way to 9 years of age.

When the babies were 12 months old, the team asked parents the amount of time babies spent with screens on weekdays and weekends. Later, when the children were 18 months old, the researchers used encephalograms (EEGs) to study their brain waves.

An infant in their smiling mother’s lap. Both are wearing EEG nets on their heads.
The EEG net on this toddler’s head captures electrical activity in different parts of the brain, which can then be analyzed. (Courtesy Evelyn Law)

The more time the children had spent with screens at 12 months of age, the stronger were their slower-frequency brain waves, known as theta waves, compared with high-frequency beta waves.

“A higher theta/beta ratio indicates a less-alert state, and has been associated with inattention,” explains Dr. Evelyn Law, who led the study and was part of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurosciences during her fellowship at Boston Children’s.

Lasting effects at school age

When the children reached age 9, they underwent extensive neuropsychological testing. The research team also had the children’s parents and teachers complete surveys about them.

Correlating with the EEGs, Dr. Law and her colleagues found that with every hour increase in average screen time, the children had more difficulties with attention and struggled more with executive functioning. However, because screen time is just one aspect of an infant’s environment, it is likely that multiple factors come into play, such as the quality of time with parents, the researchers say. It’s also possible that more active infants unintentionally receive more screen time as their parents try to manage their daily routines.

Rising EEG theta-wave intensity as daily screen hours increase: less than 1, more than 1, more than 2, more than 4.
Brain EEGs taken at 18 months of age. The ratio of theta waves to beta waves in the brain increases as hours of screen time at 12 months of age increase.

Advice for parents

What can parents do to promote their child’s brain development during infancy? Drs. Law and Wilkinson recommend creating simple playful interactions, as in these sample activities. In the meantime, if parents need to put their infants briefly in front of a screen, Dr. Wilkinson recommends trying to add layers of learning.

“Singing along, commenting on characters, imitating their baby’s vocalizations, and asking them questions creates opportunities for back-and-forth interactions between parents and baby that boost brain development,” she says.

The study findings, published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, are in keeping with recommendations on media use from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP advises keeping children away from screens until they’re 18 months old and limiting digital media use for 2- to 5-year-olds to one hour per day.

Learn more about the Developmental Medicine Center and check out our upcoming Kids’ Health podcast episode on screen time.

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