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Read “Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology and Early Education” (Linn, Almon, & Levin) with an open mind. Choose a point from the article that resonates with you. It can be a perspective with which you agree or disagree.

Young Children, Technology

and Early Education

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood • Alliance for Childhood •

Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment

the Screen Dilemma:

Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young children, technology and early education

© 2012 The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Alliance for Childhood

All rights reserved.

First printing, October 2012

Printed in the United States of America

Cover and Graphic Design: Sonya Cohen Cramer

Editing: Colleen Cordes

Proofreading: Shara Drew and Niki Matsoukas

For permission to reprint or translate, contact [email protected]

Facing the Screen Dilemma is available online at





Suggested Citation: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Alliance for Childhood, & Teachers

Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (2012, October). Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young children,

technology and early education. Boston, MA: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood; New York, NY:

Alliance for Childhood.

Young Children, Technology and Early Education

the Screen Dilemma:

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood

Alliance for Childhood

Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment

F a c i n g t h e S c r e e n D i l e m m a : Y o u n g C h i l d r e n , T e C h n o l o g Y a n d e a r lY e d u C a T i o n2


We are grateful to our reviewers for their wise and thoughtful insights: Nancy Carlsson-

Paige, EdD; Sherry Cleary, MS; Colleen Cordes; Cliff Craine; Katherine Clunis D’Andrea,

MA, MS; June Goldstein, MA; Jane Healy, PhD; Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, MEd; Linda

Rhoads, MS; Mary L. Ross; Mary Rothschild, MA; Yvonne Smith, MS; John Surr, JD; and

Rosario Villasana, MA.

We especially thank Josh Golin, who urged us to take this on and patiently read and

commented on numerous drafts.

We also want to thank the Concerned Educators Allied for a Safe Environment

(CEASE) for their generous contribution toward the costs of this publication.


Foreword …………………………………………………………………………………………. 3

Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………………….4

What Research Tells Us about Screen Time and Young Children …………….. 5

Whether or Not You Use Screen Technology in Your Setting ………………….11

If You Choose to Make Your Center Screen-Free ………………………………….. 13

If You Choose to Incorporate Screen Technology in Your Setting …………… 17

Conclusion ………………………………………………………………………………………. 18

Recommendations ……………………………………………………………………………. 19

Endnotes ………………………………………………………………………………………. 20

Suggested Reading …………………………………………………………………………… 23

About the Authors …………………………………………………………………………….24

3F a c i n g t h e S c r e e n D i l e m m a : Y o u n g C h i l d r e n , T e C h n o l o g Y a n d e a r lY e d u C a T i o n


T he authors of this guide represent three organizations whose missions overlap in a commitment to the wellbeing of children. We share concerns about the escalating mis-
use and overuse of screen technologies in the lives of even the very young. We recognize the

primary importance of nurturing young children’s active and hands-on creative play, time

with nature, and their face-to-face interactions with caring adults and other children. We see

how screen time can interfere with these and other essentials of early childhood.

Each of us has worked with and for young children for decades. Our combined

experience includes preschool teaching and preschool management, teacher education,

and helping children through play therapy. We each have worked intensively to mitigate

the harmful effects of screen media on young children. That said, we are by no means

technophobes. Collectively we tweet, text, blog, Skype, and enjoy new technologies in all

sorts of ways. Our backgrounds include creating, and performing in, media programs for

young children and consulting on their content; helping teachers grapple with the impact

of media on children in their classrooms; and working extensively with families strug-

gling with screen time issues.

Based on mounting evidence, we are worried about the harm done to children’s health,

development, and learning in today’s media-saturated, commercially-driven culture. It’s

clear that both the nature of what children encounter on screens and the amount of time

they spend with screens are vital issues. We agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics

and other public health organizations that many young children are spending too much

time with screens—and that screen time should be discouraged for infants and toddlers,

and carefully limited for older children.

In the interests of children’s wellbeing, we believe the early childhood community

needs to study the issues surrounding screen technologies, make informed decisions about

their use in classrooms and child care settings, and work with parents to manage screen

time and content in ways that best serve young children.

Susan Linn, EdD

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC)

Joan Almon

Alliance for Childhood

Diane Levin, PhD

Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE)

There’s no
that screen
are drastically
changing the
lives of children.
As a result,
early childhood
educators face
a complex

F a c i n g t h e S c r e e n D i l e m m a : Y o u n g C h i l d r e n , T e C h n o l o g Y a n d e a r lY e d u C a T i o n4


Smart boards. Smartphones. Tablets. E-books, and more. The rapid influx of new screen devices poses a special challenge for the early childhood community. A child born today
will experience wondrous technologies few of us can even imagine. How do we best support

children’s growth, development, and learning in a world radically changed by technology?

Arriving at a truly child-centered answer to these questions is complicated by several

factors. The new technologies are exciting and often equated with progress. They are evolv-

ing so quickly that our grasp of how to make and operate them has rapidly outpaced our

understanding of the educational, developmental, ethical, and social ramifications of their

design and use.

One big challenge is that it’s hard to find objective information about whether to use

any sort of screen technology in early childhood settings. Much of what’s available comes

from companies whose profits depend on the sale of these devices or content for them, or

from organizations receiving financial support from such companies. There is a dearth of

independent research about their impact—and most of what does exist focuses on televi-

sion. Yet funding for early childhood centers, particularly in low-income communities, is

increasingly targeted for digital technology—making its inclusion understandably attractive

to cash-strapped programs.

To complicate matters further, the new technologies—such as smartphones and tab-

lets—are marketed as “interactive,” as opposed to “old technologies” such as television and

video. But these categories are not always accurate. If new technologies merely offer chil-

dren a choice between a predetermined set of options, then how much true give-and-take do

they really allow?

This guide is designed to help you and—with your support—the families with whom

you work make informed decisions about whether, why, how, and when to use screen tech-

nologies with young children. It provides an overview of the research on screen time and

young children. And it offers guidance for those who want their programs to be screen-free,

as well as for those who choose to incorporate technology in their settings.

For the purpose of this guide,
the terms “screen technologies,”
“screens,” “media,” and “screen
media” are used interchangeably to
describe the general category of elec-
tronic devices that include screens.

Also, it is important to note that our
concerns about technology and young
children do not extend to digital
photography or programs such as
Skype that enable communication with
distant family and friends.


The American
Academy of
Pediatrics and
other public
health organiza-
tions and agen-
cies recommend
screen time for
children under
2 and no more
than 1 to 2 hours
per day (exclud-
ing schoolwork)
for older chil-

American Academy of
Pediatrics Council on
Communications and
Media (2010).

5F a c i n g t h e S c r e e n D i l e m m a : Y o u n g C h i l d r e n , T e C h n o l o g Y a n d e a r lY e d u C a T i o n

What Research Tells Us about

Screen Time and Young Children*

Beginning in infancy, screen technologies dominate the lives of many young children, and they have significantly altered childhood.1 2 3 But how do we best support young
children’s health, development, and learning in a digital world? To date, research tells us

that screen time has no real benefit for infants and toddlers.4 For older children, the context

in which they use media, the nature of the content they experience, and the amount of time

they spend with screens are all important considerations.5

For children over 3, studies show that some exposure to thoughtfully constructed media

content can promote pro-social behaviors6 and contribute to learning,7 especially when a

caring adult is actively involved.8

On the other hand, some screen content can be harmful to children. Games and digital

activities that limit children to a predetermined set of responses have been shown to dimin-

ish creativity.9 Exposure to media violence is linked to aggression, desensitization to vio-

lence, and lack of empathy for victims.10 Media violence is also associated with poor school


Even the formal features of media content—the visual techniques used in program-

ming—can affect young children. For preschoolers, watching just 20 minutes of a fast-

paced cartoon show has been shown to have a negative impact on executive function skills,

including attention, the ability to delay gratification, self-regulation, and problem solving.12

Setting limits on the time young children spend with screen technologies is as im-

portant as monitoring content is for their health, development, and learning. The new

technologies haven’t displaced television and video in children’s lives—they have added to

screen time.13 Extensive screen time is linked to a host of problems for children including

childhood obesity,14 sleep disturbance,15 16 and learning,17 attention,18 and social problems.19

And time with screens takes away from other activities known to be more beneficial to their

growth and development.20

Media use begins in infancy. On any given day, 29% of babies under the age of 1 are

watching TV and videos for an average of about 90 minutes. Twenty-three percent have

a television in their bedroom.21 Time with screens increases rapidly in the early years.

Between their first and second birthday, on any given day, 64% of babies and toddlers are

watching TV and videos, averaging slightly over 2 hours. Thirty-six percent have a television

in their bedroom.22 Little is known about the amount of time children under 2 currently

spend with smartphones and tablets, but in 2011 there were three million downloads just of

Fisher Price apps for infants and toddlers.23

* A version of this section first appeared in Linn, S. (2012). Healthy kids in a digital world: A strategic plan to
reduce screen time for children 0-5 through organizational policy and practice change. A report by the Campaign for a
Commercial-Free Childhood for Kaiser Permanente Community Health Initiatives Grants Program. Available at:

The new
and video in
children’s lives—
they have added
to screen time.

F a c i n g t h e S c r e e n D i l e m m a : Y o u n g C h i l d r e n , T e C h n o l o g Y a n d e a r lY e d u C a T i o n6

Data vary on screen time for preschoolers. But even the most conservative findings

show that children between the ages of 2 and 5 average 2.2 hours per day.24 Other studies

show that preschoolers spend as much as 4.125 to 4.6 hours26 per day using screen media. As

children grow older, screen time increases and they tend to use more than one medium at

the same time. Including when they’re multi-tasking, 8- to 18-year-olds consume an aver-

age of 7 hours and 11 minutes of screen media per day—an increase of 2.5 hours in just 10


More research is needed. There is, for instance, some evidence that, for preschoolers,

having limited access to a computer at home may contribute to learning, while access to

video games does not. But the researchers did not track what children were doing on the

computer. They also found that using a computer just once a week is more beneficial than

using it every day—suggesting a little may go a long way, and that too much screen time

may interfere with learning for young children.28

To get a sense of how and why too much screen time can negatively affect learning, and

promote or exacerbate other problems for children, it’s important to look first at what young

children need for healthy growth and development.

Nurtur ing healthy br ain development

Modern science confirms what the early childhood community has known for years—that

infants, toddlers, and young children learn through exploring with their whole bodies,

including all of their senses. For optimal development, in addition to food and safety, they

need love. They need to be held, and they need plenty of face-to-face positive interactions

with caring adults. Developing children thrive when they are talked to, read to, and played

with. They need time for hands-on creative play, physically active play, and give-and-take

interactions with other children and adults. They benefit from a connection with nature and

opportunities to initiate explorations of their world.29

In the last few decades, discoveries in the neurosciences have made clear why the early

years of life are so critical. The basic architecture of the human brain develops through an

ongoing, evolving, and predictable process that begins before birth and continues into adult-

hood. Early experiences literally shape how the brain gets built. A strong foundation in the

early years increases the probability of positive outcomes later. A weak foundation does just

the opposite.30

Babies begin life with brains comprised of huge numbers of neurons, some of which

are connected to each other, and many of which are not. As children grow and develop,

everything they experience affects which neurons get connected to other neurons. Repeated

experiences strengthen those connections, shaping children’s behavior, habits, values, and

responses to future experiences. The experiences young children don’t have also influence

brain development. Neurons that aren’t used—or synaptic connections that aren’t repeat-

29% of babies under 1 year watch TV and videos for an average of 90 minutes.

64% of children 12 – 24 months watch TV and videos averaging just over 2 hours.

On any given day….

“It’s our insides
that make us
who we are,
that allow us
to dream and
wonder and
feel for others.
That’s what’s
essential. That’s
what will always
make the biggest
difference in our

Fred Rogers

7F a c i n g t h e S c r e e n D i l e m m a : Y o u n g C h i l d r e n , T e C h n o l o g Y a n d e a r lY e d u C a T i o n

ed—are pruned away, while remaining connections are strengthened.31 This means that

how young children spend their time can have important, lifelong ramifications. For better

or worse, repeated behaviors—including behaviors such as watching television, playing

video games, and playing with phone apps—can become biologically compelled habits.32

In fact, behavioral research shows that the more time young children spend with screens,

the more they watch later on,33 and the more difficulty they have turning off screens as they

become older.34

Most of the research on screen addiction has focused on television. But studies are

beginning to document the addictive potential of computers and video games as well.35 New

neuro-imaging techniques provide biological evidence of the addictive properties of some

screen media. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, reward, and alert-

ness, is released in the brain during fast-moving video games36 in a manner similar to its

release after the consumption of some addictive drugs.37 In a survey of children 8 to 18 years

old, one in four said that they “felt addicted” to video games.38

The impact of excessive screen time on development
and wellbeing

Research links many of the health and social problems facing children today to hours spent

with screens.

The erosion of creative play and interaction with caring adults: Studies show that the more

time infants, toddlers, and preschoolers spend with screens, the less time they spend en-

gaged in two activities essential to healthy development and learning.39 Screen-time takes

children away from hands-on creative play—the kind of give-and-take activities that children

generate and control, and that are specific to their interests and abilities.40

Screens also take time away from children’s interactions with caring adults. Even when

parents co-view television or videos with children, they spend less time engaged in other

activities with their children.41 And parents talk less to children when they are watching

television together than when they are engaged in other activities.42 In fact, they talk less to

children when television is on in the background as well.43 Newer technologies may also in-

terfere with parent-child conversations. The so-called interactive electronic books—in which

screen images respond to touch with sound effects or words or simple movements—are

less likely to induce the kind of adult-child interactions that promote literacy than traditional

books do.44

For young children, the added sounds and movements associated with many e-books

have been linked to lower levels of story understanding and may hinder aspects of emerg-

ing literacy.45 There is little or no research about literacy, young children, and the web. But

Screen time increases as children grow
Data vary on screen time for preschoolers. The most conservative findings show that
children between the ages of 2 and 5 average 2.2 hours per day. Other studies show
that preschoolers spend as much as 4.1 to 4.6 hours per day using screen media.
Including multi-tasking, children 8 to 18 spend 7.5 hours per day with screens.

For better or
worse, repeated
including behav-
iors such as
watching televi-
sion, playing
video games,
and playing
with phone
become biologi-
cally compelled

F a c i n g t h e S c r e e n D i l e m m a : Y o u n g C h i l d r e n , T e C h n o l o g Y a n d e a r lY e d u C a T i o n8

it’s important to note that studies of adults suggest that attributes of the internet, such as

hyperlinks and the rapid introduction of new information, may undermine reading compre-

hension as well as deep thinking.46

Undermining learning, school performance, and peer relationships: For children under 3,

research demonstrates that screen media are a poor tool for learning language and vo-

cabulary47 and suggests that they are actually linked to delayed language acquisition.48 In

contrast, socio-dramatic play has been associated with significant gains in language use

and comprehension.49 By the time children turn 10, every additional hour of television they

watched as toddlers is associated with lower math and school achievement, reduced physical

activity, and victimization by classmates in middle childhood.50

School-age children with 2 or more hours of daily screen time are more likely to have

increased psychological difficulties, including hyperactivity, emotional problems, and dif-

ficulties with peers.51

Given that children’s screen time increases as they get older, it’s important to note

that negative effects continue through adolescence. Time with television and video games

has been linked to problems with attention.52 Adolescents who watch 3 or more hours of

television daily are at especially high risk for poor homework completion, negative atti-

tudes toward school, poor grades, and long-term academic failure.53 Studies of new media

are only just beginning to emerge. Even as social networking sites are being marketed to

young children, a study by Stanford University researchers has found that girls ages 8 to12

who are heavy users of social media are less happy and more socially uncomfortable than

their peers.54

Childhood obesity: Starting in early childhood, time with screen media is an important risk

factor for childhood obesity.55 56 57 The more time preschoolers spend watching television,

the more junk food58 and fast food59 they are likely to eat. In fact, for each hour of television

viewing per day, children, on average, consume an additional 167 calories.60

Studies also show that increased food intake and overweight are linked to video-game

use.61 And while active video games were heralded as a means of encouraging exercise in

children, those who own active video games, such as those for the Wii video-game console,

do not show an increase in physical activity.62

Sleep disturbance: Hours with television are linked to irregular sleep patterns in infants and

toddlers63 and to sleep disturbance in preschoolers64 and children ages 6 to 12.65 Time with

video games is also linked to sleep disturbance in children and adolescents.66

Extensive exposure to harmful commercialism: Since the advent of television, screen media

have been targeting children with advertising for a host of products including food, toys,

clothing, accessories, and more. With the weakening of federal regulations in the 1980s and

the proliferation of media produced for kids, marketing to children has increased exponen-

tially. In 1983, companies were spending $100 million annually targeting children.67 Now

they are spending over $17 billion.68

Most screen media for children is commercially driven. And beloved screen characters

routinely market products and more media to young viewers—to the detriment of their

“At Google
and all these
places, we make
technology as
brain-dead easy
to use as possi-
ble. There’s no
reason why kids
can’t figure it out
when they get

Google executive, Alan
Eagle, quoted in Richtel,
M. (2011, October 21). A
Silicon Valley school that
doesn’t compute. New York
Times, p. A1.

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health and wellbeing. Childhood obesity,69 discontent about body image70 and eating disor-

ders,71 sexualization,72 youth violence,73 family stress,74 underage drinking,75 and underage

tobacco use76 are all linked to screen-based advertising and marketing. So is the erosion of

creative play.77 In addition, research shows that, regardless of their commercial content,

television and videos are less apt to generate creativity and imagination than books—which

require more of children.78

For over 30 years, the food, marketing, media, and toy industries have successfully

blocked meaningful government regulation of marketing to children. They have many

avenues for reaching children, but advertising on screen media is their primary gateway.

Reducing the amount of time children spend with screens is one of the few immediately

available strategies for limiting marketers’ access to, and impact on, children.

About the digital divide

Proponents of incorporating new technologies into early childhood settings argue that

young children from low-income families must acquire “technology handling skills” or

they will fall behind children from wealthier communities.79 Since many children in low-

income communities lag behind in experiences important to learning and literacy, such

as early exposure to a rich and varied vocabulary80 and access to books,81 it is argued that

postponing, or reducing, experiences with new technologies will create another barrier to

academic success.

The term “digital divide” was coined in the 1960s to describe inequalities in access to

computer technology.82 By the 1990s, its meaning expanded to include inequality in access

to the internet.83 Inequality in access still exists, but the gap is closing.84 The meaning of the

digital divide has become more nuanced, especially for children. Concern is growing about

how they are using the new screen technologies, how much time they spend, and what it’s


According to a survey published in 2011, children ages 0 to 8 from low-income fami-

lies spend significantly more time with television and videos than their wealthier peers.85 It

also shows that there is still a significant gap in ownership of home computers and mobile

devices such as smartphones and tablets.86

At the same time, data from the survey showing the relationship between income

level and how much time young children spend with new technologies paint a more am-

biguous picture. Children from all income levels spend about the same amount of time

playing games on digital devices and engaged in other computer-based activities including


Additional information is clearly needed for early childhood educators to make in-

formed decisions about technology and the needs of children from low-income communi-

ties. Rapid developments in the availability and pricing of mobile devices will likely affect

access and the amount of time children spend with them. As yet, there is no evidence that

introducing screen technologies in early childhood means children will be more adept

when they’re older. That means we can’t make an evidence-based comparison to “book-

handling skills.” And, finally, there is an urgent need for research to determine if adding

screen technologies of any kind in early childhood settings will increase or decrease gaps

in achievement.

Modern science
confirms what
the early child-
hood commu-
nity has known
for years—that
infants, toddlers,
and young
children learn
through explor-
ing with their
whole bodies,
including all of
their senses.

F a c i n g t h e S c r e e n D i l e m m a : Y o u n g C h i l d r e n , T e C h n o l o g Y a n d e a r lY e d u C a T i o n1 0


More independent research is needed on the impact of screen technologies on young chil-

dren. But whether you believe that early childhood settings should include screen time or

not, there is enough evidence to draw these conclusions: Many young children are spending

too much time with screens at the expense of other important activities. There’s no evidence

that screen time is educational for infants and toddlers, and there is some evidence that it

may be harmful. Some carefully monitored experience with quality content can benefit chil-

dren over 3. But what’s most important for children is lots of time for hands-on creative and

active play, time in nature, and face-to-face interactions with caring adults. And, regardless

of content, excessive screen time harms healthy growth and development.

Based on the available research, the next three sections of this guide contain practical

information and suggestions for making your own decisions about using screen technolo-

gies with young children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and the National
Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education recommend the following
guidelines for screen time in early care and early education settings:

• In early care and education settings, media (television [TV], video, and DVD) viewing and comput-
er use should not be permitted for children younger than two years.

• For childr

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