Entranced or Engaged? Young Children and Screens

“Hey, buddy?” I asked my then four-year-old. “Can you hear my voice?” 

“Uh-huh,” he answered without looking at me, absentmindedly grabbing a french fry from the plate in front of him without ever moving his eyes toward his meal.

I moved my hands in front of his face to interrupt the spell cast over him by the glowing screen in the corner. I needed to ask him a question, but I was also eager to disrupt the slack-jawed, eyes-glazed stance my kid had taken since sitting down in our booth. 

We were grabbing a quick bite to eat at a neighborhood restaurant before heading home for the evening. The server, noticing the age of our kids, had delivered a box of crayons to the table and changed the closest television to cartoons when we arrived. We appreciated the server’s thoughtful gestures. We also knew that the crayons were the last thing that our kids would be using once they saw that the screen was playing one of their favorite shows.

toddler watching tv

Zombie effect?

When television was still a fairly new pastime for young children, researchers coined the term “zombie effect” to describe this glassy-eyed, screen-induced trance that fell over my youngest child at the restaurant. It is certainly unsettling. So much so that a photographer once titled a series of portraits of children engrossed in cartoons: “Idiot Box.” 

It is hard to deny that toddlers and preschoolers have a mesmerizing relationship with videos and television content. But the idea of a “zombie effect” seems unfair. Should we really be concerned about that seemingly vacant stare? Or is something else going on when our kids are in front of the screen? 

Hardwired to look.

Researchers have been hard at work answering these questions for a few decades. It turns out, that very young children are likely to look at screens because of the novel sights, sounds, and movements they see there. Children are born into the world with a strong reactive attention system. Located deep within their brains, this system alerts them to and helps them focus on sudden changes or novelty in their environments. This is a good thing! This has helped keep children alive for hundreds of years. Just imagine how important it is for a toddler to immediately notice and respond to a snake crawling its way.

The challenge is digital technologies introduce a lot of novelty and sudden changes in a young child’s environment. Quick scene changes, loud noises or changes in music, vibrant colors, and visual stimuli all ignite a child’s “orientation response,” triggered by their hardwired reactive attention system. 

Children’s focused attention system, on the other hand, is part of their executive control networks which is still growing and developing throughout early childhood. We use our focused attention system when we purposefully filter out distractions to focus on the task at hand. Because it is still under construction, young children’s focused attention is more likely to be disrupted by distractions in their environment.

Play, interrupted.

Before we get carried away, reactive attention doesn’t mean that a magnetic television in the corner of a restaurant is going to have lasting negative effects. Indeed, staring at a glowing screen can certainly come in handy when we need to get something done. Science invites us to look at patterns and context, not to judge parents for trying to get through the day. In other words, we can ask ourselves – What activities are being interrupted? What is the value of the content on screen? What are the alternatives? 

For example, researchers have analyzed the impact of background television on children’s focused play. We know that focused free play has incredible cognitive and emotional benefits for young children. Unfortunately, play and background media aren’t a great mix. One team of researchers found a distinct decrease in the length of focused play periods when TV was on in the same room. Even adult-oriented background TV (in this case, episodes of Jeapordy!) reduced the length of play sessions and the degree of focused attention during play. Another study recently reinforced these findings. Researchers found that solo play with background TV predicted lower executive function scores among preschoolers. This is no small thing as children ages eight months to eight years are exposed to nearly 4 hours of background television on a typical day. 

Most of us are quick to write off the effects of background media on young children. “They aren’t even watching it!” we say to ourselves. We aren’t wrong about that. During shows like Jeapordy!, children tend to cast their eyes only periodically toward the screen. In this case, the concern isn’t what they are watching. Instead, the concern is that background media tends to interrupt an activity that children need for healthy development: play. 

Hardwired for story.

This research is important but doesn’t explain my four-year-old’s slack-jawed absorption in cartoons during dinner. Indeed, the research team noted that the toddlers in their study didn’t abandon their play to watch Jeapordy!. Far from becoming TV-obsessed zombies, these kids were ultimately more interested in their toys. 

The explanation for my child’s absorption in the restaurant, it turns out, has less to do with reactive attention and more to do with the power of storytelling. When it comes to television and video content – flashing colors, jump cuts, scene changes, and loud noises are likely to grab our kids’ reactive attention systems. But these techniques aren’t likely to hold their attention unless they are accompanied by a good story. 

This is backed up by experiments in the lab. When researchers show children randomly edited and chopped-up programs that make no sense, the disjointed content ultimately sends kids running back to their blocks. Understandable dialogue and narratives, on the other hand, tend to draw them in. Even children as young as two years old will pay attention to stories.

Media on, minds on.

Where does this leave us? This science reminds us that far from turning our kids into Zombies, television and video content are activating attention and comprehension. By two years old, our kids are busily figuring out the characters, predicting what might happen next, and relating it to their experience. Not all enthralling shows are created equal though. Some shows rely on relevant, age-appropriate, high-quality storytelling to engage young children. Others use cheaper hacks that combine familiar characters with persuasive design to hook our kids’ reactive attention. 

Taken together, this means that young children often need us to turn media off altogether so they can focus on the things that matter in front of them – whether it is play, conversation, sleep, or engaging in family routines. It also means that when we turn media on we should pay close attention to the content. Not because it will turn them into zombies but because they are actively engaged to the stories, characters, and lessons they find there.

Here are a few ways to get the most out of television with young children:

Avoid background media.

Think kids aren’t watching? They might not be. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t scattering their attention and disrupting play, sleep, or connection. 

Follow the ratings and look for high-quality stories.

Children will pay attention to stories even if they just understand parts of it. This means they will absorb the emotional impact of violent, scary, or inappropriate stories even if much of it is over their heads. Common Sense Media has great reviews of TV shows for kids. Check out their “diverse representations” score that helps parents identify high-quality media that includes and elevates accurate portrayals of characters of color.

Try alternatives to YouTube

YouTube isn’t designed for young children. A recent report found that ads, toys, and games dominate viewing. Instead, try YouTube kids or other child-directed platforms. Try subscribing only to channels that have positive lessons, diverse role models, and age-appropriate storytelling. 

Be wary of marketing claims of “educational” shows.

Just because a show is a cartoon or has a good lesson at the end doesn’t mean that it is good for kids. Many of these shows are packed full of persuasive design features meant to attract their reactive attention. The best shows are created in consultation with child development experts so that it is age-appropriate, engaging, and educational too. When in doubt, try PBSKids.

Talk talk talk.

Watch together and/or engage your kids in conversation about the stories they are seeing. Try, “What did the bear do after he left his tree? If you were a bear, where would you go?” If you don’t watch with your child, ask about it later. “What adventure did Bluey have today?”

Pay attention to your child.

Every child is different. Does a show make your child irritable? Anxious? Inspired? Soothed? Creative? Watch and adapt accordingly.


Found great programs for your kids? Enjoy exploring new stories together.