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Parents of Young Children: Why Your Screen Time Matters, Too

By: Joanna Parga-Belinkie, MD, IBCLC, FAAP

Parents today are more pressed for time than any other generation. Smartphones can be a way to connect with others and make our lives easier. But using them too much can get in the way of parent-child interactions. And research suggests that too much tech and too little talk could delay communication skills development.

After all, the most important thing for your child's development and communications skills is you. Still, it can be hard sometimes to separate from hand-held devices and focus intently on the baby, toddler or preschooler in front of you.

Read on for reasons to keep your phone checking in check, along with tips to build in tech-free time to engage with your little ones.

Why YOU can't be replaced by technology

Did you know that 80% of a child's brain development occurs by the time they are 3 years old? The development of speech and language skills is strongly linked to thinking ability, social relationships, reading, writing and school success. This development happens when parents and children regularly talk and communicate both with words and without words (verbal and nonverbal interactions).

Nothing can take the place of these interactions when it comes to our children's learning and speech and language development. That's why it is important to focus on quality real-life face time.

Below are some ideas to help you do this. You can also create a family media plan at to help create consistent expectations and habits around media use for you and your children.

3 screen-free ways to engage with your young children and enhance their communication skills.

  1. Play together. There is a lot of developmental power in playing low tech games with your children. Seemingly simple games such as peekaboo, pat-a-cake, and Itsy-Bitsy Spider serve an important purpose: they promote face-to-face interaction. They teach turn-taking and reinforce essential parts of bonding and conversation. Activities like blowing kisses, waving bye-bye and clapping all help a child build social interaction and conversation skills.

  2. Share a common focus: Read a book together, share a toy, look at the same dog in a park. When two people focus on the same thing at the same time, they engage in what is called "joint attention." This is a vital part of communication and a form of play. (See a theme here? We want you to have fun with this!).

    Joint attention helps build important social skills. It allows a child to share an experience with another person and see someone else's point of view. Sharing focus lets a child know you are interested in what they say or do. When parents are on their cell phones, they are not fully focused on the same points of attention as their child, and miss key opportunities to build this skill.

  3. Serve and return: Speaking and understanding words are just part of the communication puzzle. Non-verbal signals such as eye contact, facial expressions, gestures and body language give additional information. Even in infancy, a child can recognize emotions and understand the intent of a message. When you use a smartphone, these nonverbal cues to your child are often reduced or stopped completely. As a result, they can miss out on important nonverbal signals that are part of learning to communicate.

    Parents focused on their phones may also miss information their kids are trying to send them.This may be through pointing, gesturing or staring, for example.
    These are subtle, but vital signals that young children send, especially when they don't speak many words yet. So, when your young child throws you a ball, toss that ball back. Show them you are listening to them and watching them. Teach them that their actions matter to you.

Tips for managing tech overload

It may be hard to keep your phone out of sight completely, especially since most parents also use their phones to take photos and videos of their kids. But carving out some boundaries to promote technology use in a healthy way can help. Here are some suggestions:

  • Create regular tech-free times: As part of the daily routine, make devices such as TVs, phones, computers, games or other electronic devices off limits at specific times. Before bedtime is an important one, for example. In addition, more extended breaks from technology each day are beneficial, especially for families with very young children.

    You can also limit digital distractions by creating tech-free rooms or zones in the house, such as the kitchen table. If you're sitting around the table texting while eating, you are not connecting. Setting aside the phone signals to kids that we are available and present. This lays the groundwork for your child entering the 'tween and teen years, when it is crucial to keep the lines of communication open.

  • Designate tech-free outings: A trip to the farm or the zoo, a playdate in the park, a day at the pool. Most parents love taking pictures of their kids to share, but try to let some activities go undocumented. Putting the phone away allows everyone to enjoy fun, uninterrupted moments and focus on talking and communicating with each other.

  • Use technology in an interactive way: If you are using a phone or other device, use it with your kids—together. Talk about what you see, ask them questions, and otherwise engage them face-to-face.

  • Set your own timers: Parents often say they use their phone to "escape" a bit from parenting stress, but the endless feed can lead to more time scrolling than they intended! If you need a quick break from your kids, set a timer so that you remind yourself to reengage with them.

See Beyond Screen Time: Help Your Kids Build Healthy Media Use Habits for more ideas.

Remember: your young child looks to you

Communication skills are critical to your child's development. Young children gain communication and social skills through listening, talking, reading, singing and playing (here it is again—a reminder to have fun!) with their parents. These valuable interactions can be lost while you are on a smartphone.

While your smartphone plays an important role in your life, find time to interact with your child without it. Your child may not thank you, but you'll be thankful you took the time to help them grow and learn.

More information

About Dr. Parga-Belinkie

Joanna Parga-Belinkie, MD, IBCLC, FAAP, is a neonatologist or baby doctor and a lactation consultant. She does clinical time in both the neonatal intensive care unit and in the newborn nursery with healthy babies. Dr. Parga-Belinkie works in Philadelphia where she is the director of a newborn nursery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Communications and Media Executive Committee and also co-host of the AAP flagship podcast Pediatrics on Call.

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American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media (Copyright © 2023)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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