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Experts say that screen time for young children should be limited and done with a parent. Getty Images

Electronic screens are so present in young lives, it can be difficult for parents to keep their children away from them.

Lindsey Wagnon keeps a sharp eye on how much time her 4-year-old spends in front of screens. She even monitors how much her daughter watches other people’s screens.

“About a month ago we were at the gym and there was another little kid watching a video he wanted to show her,” said Wagnon, a resident of Concord, California. “But she knew if she watched it, she could get in trouble. So, she got out her Go-Fish cards and taught him how to play.”

“It was one of those proud parent moments for me,” she told Healthline. “Kids want to interact with each other. They just need to know how.”

The glow of screens is a magnet for many. Screens from televisions, cell phones, and computers can dominate young children to the point that some compare the effects to that of secondhand smoke.

“Just as frequently being around other people while they smoke can cause cancer… what I call ‘secondhand screen time’ could be endangering children,” wrote Joelle Renstrom, a lecturer of rhetoric at Boston University, on academic website TheConversation.com.

Renstrom became interested in the effects of screen time on children after seeing how many of her students couldn’t stay off their phones during a 50-minute class.

“While I encourage (students) to examine their habits, I blame students far less for their tech addiction than I did a decade ago,” Renstrom wrote. “They’ve learned this behavior from adults — in many cases since the moment they were born.”

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended parents avoid screen time for children younger than 18 months, other than video chatting.

The organization said parents wanting to introduce children between 18 and 24 months old to screens should do so with “high quality programming” they watch with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.

It also recommended parents limit screen use among children 2 years to 5 years old “to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.”

Which applies to one of Wagnon’s biggest parental peeves.

“At the gym I go to, there’s a little playroom for the kids to hang out,” she said. “I’ve seen moms hand their kids their phones, put it on YouTube, and go on their way,” she said. “I’m of the opinion that all kids are screen addicts and it’s up to us to control what they watch.”

In November 2019, research showed that screen use among 47 healthy pre-kindergarten children that exceeded the AAP guidelines was associated with “lower measures of micro-structural organization and myelination of brain white matter tracts that support language and emergent literary skills and corresponding cognitive assessments.”

The study looked at children ages 3 to 5 years from August 2017 to November 2018.

In other words, too much screen time isn’t good for developing brains.

“Babies are being programmed,” said Dr. Danelle Fisher, the vice chairwoman of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. “They’re going to see (adults) looking at screens and think that’s the norm.”

“Kids younger than 2 should be playing with toys,” she told Healthline.

Fisher emphasized she wasn’t saying screen time causes autism, but did point to research suggesting increased screen time among infants has been linked to decreased cognitive ability.

A 2018 study from Intractable & Rare Diseases Research stated that “some studies suggest that increased screen time in young children is associated to negative health outcomes such as decreased cognitive ability, impaired language development, mood, and autistic-like behavior including hyperactivity, short attention span, and irritability.”

The study said young children spending more time in front of screens, compared to more socially-engaged children, have parents who “actively persuade them to use electronic screen media as a companion to entertain and to keep them occupied, therefore, the parent can freely (work) on their own.”

It also said “early exposure to screen can cause neurochemical and anatomical brain changes. Reduced melatonin concentration has been found significantly in a group of individual(s) who were exposed to screen(s).”

“Eye contact is a basic thing,” said Fisher, who has an 8-year-old son. “It’s an animal thing. Kids have to make eye contact and identify what’s going on around them. We are seeing children who are not relating to other human beings because they don’t know what’s going on around them.”

“Addiction starts at any age,” Fisher said. “A kid can get addicted to juice or junk food.”

Children of stay-at-home parents can feel their parents’ isolation, she said. Those children constantly seeing parents in front of screens think it’s normal.

“They need to go outside,” she said. “They need to make playdates and go to parks.”

Fisher said no parent is immune to the pull and effects of technology, not even a pediatrician. When her son was 4, he knew how to turn on the television while his parents were asleep.

“He went to turn on the television, which would usually have cartoons on,” she said. “He did something and accidentally ordered a pornographic movie. We heard something odd and looked and saw what was on. My husband ran out and turned the channel, and my son said ‘Daddy, I was watching that.’”

“My husband called Dish Network and they happily walked him through how to set parental controls,” she said. “It was a reminder for us to pay attention.”