Parents may feel allowing young children to watch “educational” DVDs is OK and even helps kids learn, giving them an advantage when they start school. But child development experts – and the research – say differently. Age is a big factor in what, if any, screen time is appropriate. It is also important to understand how differently time spent sitting in front of a screen affects the brain as compared to other sedentary activities, like listening to a story.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued recommendations that parents not allow children under the age of two any screen time -- watching TV, playing video games, or using a computer or tablet.

Spending time playing video games, watching TV, or surfing the Internet just makes them want to spend more time plugged in.

“[There is] some evidence to show that screen time for really young children under two years old is negative, and research was done that shows it is potentially linked to attention and behavioral problems later on,” Nicole Martins, an assistant professor in the department of telecommunications at Indiana University, told TheDoctor.

The first three years of life are a time of rapid brain growth, Martins said, and children learn best from interacting with parents and caregivers, not from screen media. She went on to say that no evidence exists linking positive effects with spending time on screen media and that children actually learn less vocabulary from watching educational DVDs. They need to talk with their parents and caregivers.

Now there is research showing that screen time is physiologically distinct from other sedentary activities and should be considered separately from other sedentary behaviors.

In addition to the risk of obesity associated with inactivity, when a child is focused on a screen, food and hunger cues are disrupted. Prolonged screen time also affects the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays an important role in the ability to pay attention; more screen time results in a reduced attention span. Dopamine, part of the brain’s reward system, is produced in response to what British researcher Aric Sigman terms “screen novelty.”

Dopamine has also been implicated as a basis for addiction, and more children are using screen media in an addictive way according to Sigman. Spending time playing video games, watching TV, or surfing the Internet just makes them want to spend more time plugged in.

The companies producing shows for toddlers make millions of dollars preying upon parents’ fears that their child is not going to be smart enough or social enough by the time they get to preschool, Martins said. They claim that if you show your child their DVDs as an infant, they will be better off when they get to school.

But there is no research to support these claims.

As a result, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has stepped in. Companies cannot label their videos or computer games as something that has been proven to work, because there is no evidence to suggest that they do.

What Parents Can Do

Sigman has called for the U.K. and other European countries to establish guidelines for the amount of screen time children should be allowed each day, and the appropriate age at which they should begin to view screen media. In his paper, he made recommendations for parents regarding screen time, including minimizing or delaying screen time for the first 3 years, not putting TVs in children’s bedrooms, and monitoring the amount of time a child spends with handheld computer games or media.

If you are going to allow your child over 2 to watch something, be more thoughtful about the shows you do let your child watch. Pick a show that is educational, such as things on PBS, like Sesame Street or Between the Lions, Martins suggested. Take the time to sit down with your child and watch together. That way, if you see something on TV that could be a teachable moment or an educational tool, you can talk about it. That conversation, and the time spent together, can help mitigate the negative impact of screen time.

If you have really young kids and are trying to use a few minutes of entertainment to give you a chance to finish dinner, for example, give them a toy, said Martins. “They will be just as entertained with the toy as with the TV,” she said.

Sigman’s paper was published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.