Can TV and too much exposure to electronic devices be detrimental to your child's development before the age of 3 years?

Published on December 1, 2013

Dr. Louise McCauley - Educational Psychologist

As a psychologist, I often get asked by parents and teachers whether there are any negative impacts on children who are exposed to digital media and new digital devices, such as iPads and smart phones, over long periods of time. Currently this is not a question that can be answered, mainly due to the fact that these devices have not been around for very long, and no up-to-date research has been conducted on children who have had a high level of exposure over short or long periods of time.

We know that heavy TV viewing has adverse impacts on the attention spans of young children, therefore, as Dr Jennifer Kiing, Clinical Director of NUH’s Child Development Unit, clearly states; “it is believed that there is a likelihood that the heavy use of these new devices among young children may result in attention deficits in later life.” The first 3 years of life is considered a critical time for brain development. Excessive use of television and other mobile electronic media is therefore likely to get in the way of a child’s exploration, and playing and interacting with their peers and their parents. We know that children develop their speech and language, gross and fine motor skills and social interaction skills through their daily exposure and interaction with others - so it goes without saying that if children are no longer exposed to these important interactions that they will be disadvantaged later on in life. Also, understanding social norms and good social behaviours is something that is developed through parents exposing their children to situations where they are required to learn how to sit still, attend to conversations, engage in social conversations and adopt good table manners. I am sure, like me, many of you look around coffee shops and restaurants on a daily basis and see entire families buried in their electronic devices, therefore failing to interact with each other.

Does anyone question what this is actually doing to these children? An informal chat quite recently with a neurodevelopmental paediatrician really gave me food for thought regarding this significant social problem. She said that she had asked parents if they would allow their child of 2 years old to take an untested drug that made them sit still and attend for long periods of time. All of the parents were completely shocked, stating ‘no, of course not!’ However, she was right in highlighting to them that this is exactly what they are doing on a daily basis when exposing their children to television and the constant use of electronic devices Although there are potential benefits from viewing some TV shows, such as the promotion of positive social behaviours, there are also many negative effects. Dr Kiing states that “the number of hours of television watched daily from age 1 to 3 years is associated with increased attention problems at age 7.” Additionally, children who view violent acts are more likely to show aggressive behaviour. They also fear that the world is a scary place and that something bad might happen to them. I come across families and children who talk about being obsessed with games such as ‘Minecraft.’ Parents think that this is a harmless game in which children build houses with blocks. But in reality, the aim of the game is to build structures so as to protect against nocturnal monsters. Any young child who is already scared of the dark is not going to benefit from spending hours protecting themselves in an alternative reality. How can we expect them to go to bed calmly and not expect something harmful to come out from under their bed and hurt them? So, if your child is going to be exposed to computers and games make it your mission to ensure that you know exactly what the games are about. Ensure that violence, aggression, and the need for self-preservation in dangerous alternative realities are kept to a minimum. Not all use of touchscreen tablet computers and smart phones, or other similar devices, are detrimental. As with TV viewing it has to do with the age of exposure, intensity and nature of programmes a child is exposed to.

There are a number of fantastic iPad Apps that have been developed to support education and communication, and there are a number of professionals, such as Speech and Language Therapists, who use these apps with children who require language intervention. This is why it is a good idea to speak to professionals, or education providers, about the best apps for children of different ages. All of the recommendations about regulating TV viewing for young children should apply to electronic devices. As Dr Kiing states, “while we won’t know for some years about the effects of heavy or early iPad or iPhone use on our children, we should probably not wait till the research evidence is out before we start enforcing some simple rules to regulate their use.” Personally, I think it is wise to think about these devices as untried and untested drugs. They might help to keep your child quiet and out of trouble; however, you need to ask yourself the question, “would I expose my child to anything harmful if I knew the effect it would have on them later on in life?” No? Then this gives you even more reason to be cautious and restrictive about these devices.

The following guidelines on electronic devices and television by Dr Jennifer Kiing are useful:

  • No TV or computer time for children under 2 years of age (or at least limit this to an absolute minimum!) 
  • After 2 years of age, children’s use of TV and the computer should be permitted with caution. 
  • For TV viewing, quality programmes are chosen. These usually refer to educational programmes that teach children social and moral lessons, and are not too fast paced for the developing brain. 
  • Sit with your children during TV/computer time so that you can help them contextualise what they see and hear and make it meaningful. 
  • Do not use electronic devices and the TV as a babysitter. 
  • It is better to put a young child in a safe area and have music playing, rather than having them exposed to visual imagery which is not closely monitored if a parent or caregiver is busy. 
  • Ensure timed access to any electronic device, with either parent monitoring or having the device automatically timed out. 
  • Limit access to YouTube, and other Internet websites that could be harmful. 
  • Limit the number and type of games available on the electronic device. 
  • Limits the use of devices to weekends. 
  • Regulate the use of devices on weekends and holidays 
  • Ensure that devices are not brought along to family gatherings, outings, mealtimes and trips out so as to ensure that you and your children socially engage with each other. 


Category(s):Child Development

Written by:

Dr Louise McCauley

Dr Louise McCauley is an Educational and Child Psychologist trained in the UK who is working in Singapore and the South East Asian region. Dr. McCauley specialises in working with children and families where children are struggling in school, socially, or parents are concerned about development. Dr. McCauley works as part of a multi-professional team of internationally trained and registered child specialists at Cognitive Health Consultancy International in Novena Medical Centre.

Dr Louise McCauley belongs to Cognitive Health Consultancy International in Singapore

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