According to a study by Common Sense Media, in 2013, half of all American children had used a smartphone or computer before their second birthday. The same study showed that in 2013, the average child under 8 consumed almost 2 hours of media per day, whether it was from television, video games, computers or mobile devices.
Because of the pervasiveness of media in most children’s lives, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently updated their policy stance on children and media use.
Infants Learn Through Human Interaction
Babies under two years of age learn best through hands-on exploration of the world around them, and through one-on-one interactions with caregivers. A flat screen without the dimensionality or physical limitations of the real world is ill-suited to a baby’s exploration. Therefore, parents are discouraged from letting infants use media.
Studies by DeLoache et al and Richert et al. show that it is possible for children at age 1 ½ to learn from a screen when a parent or caregiver is interacting with them. However, the benefit comes from a parent giving them vocabulary for what they see on the screen, or taking ideas from the screen to a real life model, not from the media itself.
Toddlers Could Benefit from Carefully-Designed Programs
According to a 2014 study published in Child Development, toddlers can learn new vocabulary from specific interactive programs, such as live-chatting with a responsive adult or working through an app that scaffolds each step toward a right answer. However, none of the programs touted in the study is yet commercially available. And, while children did learn novel vocabulary from media, the studies did not show that they learn words quicker or better than with live interactions with adults.
Preschoolers Learn from Research-Tested Programs
The Academy’s position statement maintains that there is sufficient evidence that “purposely designed, and tested” TV programs and apps can help children ages 3-5 learn literacy skills and social/health related skills such as resilience and obesity prevention. However, most programming marketed to parents as “educational” is not research-based and has never been tested for efficacy. So even at this older age, parental input around programming is essential, as is real life discussions and interaction around programming.
The position statement stresses that “higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation, and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play.”
In fact, interactive digital books have actually been associated with decreased comprehension skills in children. The constant pop-ups and motion distract from – rather than enhance – the text.
Increased media exposure during the preschool years has been associated with higher body mass index and less sleep. It has also been linked to cognitive, language and social delays in children. These delays are most likely not caused by media exposure, but rather are the by-product of increased TV and computer use leading to lower interaction with caregivers.
Interestingly, Radesky et al. found that heavy media use by parents is also linked to these same delays in children. It is likely that decreased interaction with children is one cause of the delays. Another cause may be that parental media use is a model for how children will use media. Parents who use media excessively are likely to have children who use media excessively.
Recommendations for Parents
Among the Academy of Pedicatrics’ recommendations for parents are:
- Limit media use for children ages 2-5 to no more than one hour total (across all platforms) per day. Children under 2 should have limited media exposure. They recommend video-chatting with relatives as the only appropriate media-related activity for children under 18 months.
- Create a media plan for your family. Healthy children has created an interactive worksheet that guides parents to think about media use in the home and come up with rules and limits for children’s media. If children are old enough to do so, the guide stimulates useful conversations between parents and children working through it together.
- Participate with your child in their media use, and spend time interacting offline as well.
- Turn off screens at least one hour before bedtime. Blue screens and fast-paced TV action can interfere with a child’s ability to fall asleep.
- Avoid using media as a way to calm children or fill short wait times, such as routine car rides or waiting for a restaurant table. Children learn to self-regulate only with practice and modeling from adults.
Kids and Media
The Academy’s new recommendations differ from the previous policy statement mainly in advocating for less screen time for young children. The prior recommendation of no more than two hours per day has been changed to no more than one hour per day. The reasoning behind the change remains the same. Young children learn best — language, social skills, self-reliance — from hands-on interaction with real people in the real world. Screens are a fact of life, but should occupy only a small portion of a young child’s time.