Can too much screen time hinder a toddler’s development?

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We’ve all been there – you show your two-year-old a real photograph of someone and they try to “swipe” it across. We all roll around laughing at how funny it is but this shows the deeper, underlying issue that all toddlers have a need for instant gratification that comes from too much screen time.

Every finger swipe elicits an instant response of colours, sounds and shapes. The brain responds by dumping dopamine into the system – the key component of our internal reward system that makes you feel pleasure, and can encourage feelings of addiction.

Have you ever tried to take a smart device away from a two-year-old? You will not be met with the kindest of reactions because the production of dopamine in the brain is stopped and there is no immediate response to stimuli. The world suddenly becomes boring and slow to your little one and the resulting tantrum is caused by their struggle to readjust to “real” life again.

The frontal lobe develops during the critical period between birth and three years of age, so if your child is in front of a screen for extended periods of time, they’re missing out on developing social relationships with people – playing, talking and interacting with real people – the effects of which may last forever.

Screens also have a disastrous effect on melatonin production at night. The pineal gland in the brain starts to produce melatonin in your toddler a few hours before bedtime (between 5pm and 7pm) and reaches its peak in the middle of the night. Melatonin makes us sleep well at night, it makes us sleep restfully and we wake up feeling good.

“Melatonin is our helping hand at night and using a screen in the crucial hours that it is being produced is counter-intuitive to better sleep.”

Unfortunately, putting a screen in front of your toddler at the crucial time of melatonin production will destroy the melatonin and produce cortisol instead. Often parents talk about a “second wind” that happens at around bedtime – this is due to a lack of melatonin in the body. Melatonin is our helping hand at night and using a screen in the crucial hours that it is being produced is counter-intuitive to better sleep. The blue light that is emitted from a screen is of a shorter wavelength than the red or yellow spectrum and stimulates the brain, reducing melatonin in the process.

Poor sleep from a lack of melatonin results in behavioural issues and a supressed immune system. If your toddler is constantly getting sick, check on how much screen time they’ve been exposed to in the early evenings.

Instead of switching on a screen to distract your toddler during dinnertime, rather show read a book with them or make up a dance that the whole family does when your toddler eats well. Put on some music, draw on a whiteboard and get creative. Be sure to instil a culture of “no screen time” at meals for the benefit of better-quality sleep for the whole family.

World Health Organisation screen-time guidelines

Before 2 years: Sedentary (sitting) screen time is not recommended unless it’s via a video call to family and then it should be kept brief and preferably not just before bedtime.

Toddlers (2 to 3 years): No more than 1 hour of sedentary screen time – less is better.

Preschoolers (3 to 4 years): No more than 1 hour of sedentary screen time – less is better.

This article has been specifically written for BabyYumYum by Good Night sleep consultancy expert, Jolandi Bekker. Article references available on request.