Jennifer Linder – Unplugging tiny brains

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.


Jennifer Linder, professor of psychologyAlthough there is no published research on the effects of iPads on infant development, the research on infants and television has led psychologists like me and the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend zero screen time for children younger than age 2. This recommendation has been in place for almost a decade.

Despite this recommendation, screen time for infants is the norm. According to national surveys, 40 percent of babies are viewing television by 3 months of age, with the median age of first viewing at 9 months. Infants younger than 1 watch an average of 49 minutes of television per day, and 30 percent have televisions in their bedrooms. These statistics are several years old, so the numbers are likely even higher today.

Because infants do not have the motor skills to touch and control iPad screens — and there is no evidence they help develop motor skills — they cannot be an interactive device. Therefore, putting an infant in front of an iPad is comparable to placing them in front of a television, and there is reason to believe that the effects of an iPad will parallel the effects of television on infant development. As such, the research on television is useful for discussing both why the iPad bouncy seat will likely be extremely popular, as well as why it is a terrible idea.

Several years ago, a national survey of parents about the use of TV and DVDs with their infants asked why they had their babies view. Many reasons were given. Here are the top three, in order, along with the research-based counterarguments.

Parent Belief No. 1: “It is good for their brains.”

False. Research has demonstrated that children younger than 1 cannot learn from screens, even if they are watching programs aimed at infants, such as Baby Wadsworth. Researchers have coined the term “video deficit” to describe the inability of infants to learn even simple imitation from two-dimensional representations such as videos. They also can’t learn language from screens. Similarly, very young children don’t understand content of videos, indicated by their equal preference to view distorted (e.g., played backward) and non-distorted clips from popular children’s programs.

Although there is no evidence of cognitive benefits for infant screen time, there is growing evidence of harmful effects. Research has found that TV viewing before age 2 is associated with decreased vocabulary, numeric memory and reading skills. Infants exposed to adult TV programs score lower on cognitive tests and school readiness at age 4 than infants who are screen-free. Even the use of videos marketed for babies (e.g., Baby Einstein) is associated with significant drops in children’s verbal skills.

Parent Belief No. 2: “It is enjoyable for my child.”

False. Parents assume that if an infant stares at a screen and cries when it is removed, that they must be “enjoying” it. In order to understand why this is a false assumption, one needs to know a little bit about the infant brain. Infants’ brains are highly reflexive; that is, many infant responses are automatic, rather than controlled. For example, until the motor cortex of the brain develops, the movement of the arms and legs is primarily a reflex controlled by the lower areas of the brain.

Infants’ attraction to screens is driven by the visual-orienting reflex. Our brains are wired to respond to novelty, especially bright colors, loud sounds and flashing lights. This is basically a startle reflex, and it accounts for why infants stare at video screens. It does not mean they are enjoying the stimulation. Rather, they are slaves to their own reflexes and actually do not have the control to look away.

This exposure can actually be stressful to infants and may have harmful effects on a developing brain not yet evolved to tolerate all this stimulation. Although there is not conclusive evidence that early screen time leads to the development of attention problems, it also has not been ruled out as a possibility. We just don’t yet know the effects of all this stimulation on the developing brain.

Parent Belief No. 3: “I can get things done.”

True. Yes, putting your infant in front of a screen will work as a baby-sitter. But remember who the baby-sitter is and what potential harm might result. For thousands of years, parents have managed to get things done without gadgets such as an iPad bouncy seat. Yes, it may be harder, but no one said parenting was easy.

An additional concern about screen time under the age of 2 is that it replaces parent-infant interaction time. No gadget or program will ever be better for an infant than face-to-face interaction with a human being. Experimental research has demonstrated that having a screen on, even in the background, diminishes eye contact, infant-directed language and play quality between parents and their infants. Media exposure changes the physical and social context of a baby’s development by reducing both the quantity and quality of parent-child interactions.

So please, just say “No” to plugging your baby into a screen. And spread the word to all parents of infants.


Guest writer Jennifer Linder has a PhD in Child Development from the University of Minnesota. She is a professor of psychology at Linfield College, where she conducts research on the effects of media on children and adolescents. She lives in McMinnville with her husband John and her two children. In her free time, she enjoys competing in triathlons, cooking, and traveling with her family.