I know that as parents, we want what’s best for our children. New parents especially, who have the time and resources, will research endlessly trying to look for the best solutions for everything related to parenting. But what all new parents will find, is that the answers are not easily found. Whenever you uncover one answer, it will lead to another question. The most important thing we can learn is how to find the answers that do in fact make us better – better people, better parents, better thinkers, better guides…just better – and then, weed out the answers that don’t.
What the American Academy of Pediatrics Says
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all screen time be banned for children under two and that it should be limited for all children regardless of their age. I’ve never been one to just believe something because one institution or another makes a sweeping generalization about something that ALL people must do, and this was no exception. But eventually curiosity got the best of me and I decided to do some research about what exactly they are saying and why they are saying it, and this is what I learned.
First of all, I looked at The American Academy of Pediatrics, and this is what they have to say about screen time, “Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” They claim that excessive media can lead to attention problems, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity and that the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors. They suggest that we should turn off the tv during dinner, limit screen time for older children and instead encourage children to read newspapers, play board games, play outdoors, do hobbies, and use their imaginations in free play.
Why I’m Not Buying it
I agree that children’s brains are developing rapidly. (Check out my blog How Children Really Learn to Read to see what I suggest doing with their rapid brain development.) And because of this, I believe in exposing children to all kinds of learning opportunities, including screen time. Appropriately used screen time can be an amazing teaching tool!
There is just something extremely disturbing to me about a large, revered, and somewhat feared institution making a claim of this magnitude. Ban ALL screen time for the first two years? Really? I mean, it’s just absurd! So no educational playlists, no ABC videos, no nursery rhymes, no home movies, no educational apps, no family movie night, no exposure whatsoever to something that is a part of our daily lives and that we as adults use constantly? Are we supposed to segregate our children from our lives completely in order to prevent them from the evils of technology? This sounds a bit archaic and very fear based to me.
I mean, wouldn’t it make more sense to acknowledge that our children will not only encounter technology at some point, but that it will be an ever increasing part of their lives as we continue to make technological advancements and that we should teach them not only how to navigate it but how to choose the good over the bad? How to enjoy the educational over the mundane? How to use it in a positive way? But that doesn’t make for a very good slogan does it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics must assume that everyone is stupid and so instead of making a recommendation about filtering the input we expose our children to (and why do we need an institution to tell us, “don’t show your kids inappropriate content” anyways?) they say just ban it all. Ban it all, because it’s obviously a choice of one or the other. We will either park our children in front of the TV, computer, ipad, or cell phone all day every day, or we will interact and talk with them, encourage them to play outside, and model behaviors that will lead to healthy choices and lifestyles, and so they say that we must choose the latter.
What Do the Studies Say?
First of all, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that “studies show”, but doesn’t link to any studies. Where are the studies? So I did some research and found an excellent data source through the Kaiser Family Foundation. They did a meta study of all of the research ever done about children and electronic media from the 1960s to 2005. Because ipads and such are so new, there hasn’t been enough time to conduct any significant longitudinal studies, but what this meta study found about electronic media up until 2005 is pretty interesting. They also conducted a phone survey with 1,065 parents, and although I think phone surveys are pretty ridiculous, this one pointed to some interesting information. So here’s what they found.
The phone survey found that 65% of children live in a home where the the TV is on at least half the time or more, even if no one is watching it and 36% of children live in a home where the TV is left on all of the time regardless if anyone is watching it. They also learned that most kids watch TV and are exposed to media, most kids have some kind of rules about how much TV they watch, and most kids are watching TV with a parent in the room. According to the parents in this survey, kids spend about 2 hours per day watching TV, 2 hours playing outside, and about 40 minutes per day reading.
The meta study was the most fascinating because after analyzing the salient points, I am surprised that the American Academy of Pediatrics didn’t issue a statement requiring parents to have their children watch at least so many hours of educational programming per day. Here are some of the highlights about educational programming:
- Viewing of educational programs like Dora the Explorer, Blue’s Clues, Dragontales, Arthur, and Clifford for children between the ages of 6 months to 30 months of age had accelerated language growth whereas children who viewed adult programming had reduced vocabularies.
- Children who watched Blue’s Clues scored better on problem solving and flexible thinking than children who did not.
- When preschoolers who watched educational programming were studied once again in high school, they had higher grades and read more books than those who did not watch educational programming.
- In low income homes, educational viewing at ages 2 and 3 predicted school readiness.
But what about the negative aspects of TV viewing? What evidence could the American Academy of Pediatrics point to that would link electronic media to obesity and sleep disorders? Here is what I found:
- The likelihood of obesity in low income multi-ethnic children ages 1-5 increased for each hour of TV or video viewed.
- Body fat and body mass index increased most between children ages 4-11 who watched the most TV.
- 40% of children had a TV in their bedroom and were more likely to watch more TV and more likely to be obese.
- Advertising and its effects on consumerism in children has been a continuing concern since the 1970s because very young children are unable to recognize the persuasive intent of advertising.
- Children (average age of four years) preferred specific foods advertised.
- Viewing frightening programming raised children’s heart rates and caused PTSD symptoms.
There is another phone study that claims to show the negative impact of baby DVDs for children under two, but all it does is show how completely horrible Baby Einstein videos are…and yes, they are terrible. Just try watching one for a few minutes and you will immediately lose a few IQ points. (To see an example of the type of quality programming for young children like the Your Baby Can Read videos, check out this video that my husband and I made.)
What Do the Studies Mean?
So, from what I can gather, the studies show that children who watch educational programming are better off than those who do not. This makes me wonder why the American Academy of Pediatrics didn’t issue a statement encouraging parents to increase their children’s watching of educational programming rather than calling for a ban of all screen time.
Next, the studies make a correlation between the amount of TV that children watch and their levels of obesity. But when analyzing data and looking at correlations, you have to wonder when several factors involved, which is causing which. My best guess is that it’s not just the TV watching that’s leading to sedentary behavior that’s leading to obesity, but rather the massive amount of commercials geared towards manipulating children to want to consume copious amounts of sugary candy, cereals, and soft drinks as well as nutrient depleted fast foods and other such junk.
In our house, we never watch TV with commercials and so our kids are pretty much oblivious to the marketing. But I remember one time when my husband found some Internet channel that streamed old Nickelodeon programming from the 90s, and when the commercials came on, our kids were hooked! Luckily, when they begged us for BubbleTape and Gushers we knew that they wouldn’t be able to find them anywhere. 🙂
Maybe you SHOULD consider banning the use of screen time in your home if you do the following:
1. Keep the TV on all day long, even if no one is watching it, and never worry about the content of what your children are watching.
2. Let your children watch whatever they want regardless of how appropriate it is or if it causes nightmares. What’s wrong with blood, gore, killing, bad language, mature content, and clowns who hide in sewers waiting to snatch children anyways?
3. Don’t worry about your children’s exposure to commercials. Also, when they ask you to buy them the food and toys from the commercials, do it immediately!
4. Never watch TV with your kids, and never talk to them about what they are watching.
5. Let children keep TVs in their bedrooms and watch them before they go to bed. Don’t worry if they keep the TV on all night while they sleep either.
6. Instead of talking and interacting with your children or letting them go outside to play, just have them watch TV instead.
How to Use Screen Time Appropriately
1. Give up your cable subscription and be intentional about what your children watch. Learn about how to connect your TV to your computer here so you can access things like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube (find else what else we watch instead of TV here). And with the money you save from your cable subscription, you can buy entire seasons of your children’s favorite shows such as Dora, Blue’s Clues, Preschool Prep, The Magic School Bus and other educationally based programming!
2. Find a few educational programs to watch over and over again. Children don’t need a ton of variety, and you want your kids to feel a little bored with the content so that they aren’t begging for it all the time. Plus, you want to know that they are at least learning something from watching it, even if it’s just a little bit of Spanish, or story structure.
3. Do whatever you can to limit your children’s exposure to commercials. If and when they do see commercials, talk to them about the persuasive techniques advertisers use to get them to buy their products.
4. Watch programs with your children and talk to them about what they are watching. Especially when they watch something for the first time.
5. Keep TVs and computers in common areas where you can monitor what they watch and how much they’re watching. Once you are familiar with what your children are watching, I think it’s fine to have them watch it on their own. Sometimes you just need kids to be entertained for a little while so you can get a few things done!
6. Allow plenty of time for talking and interacting with your children and encourage them to play outside instead of letting them sit in from of the TV all day every day. Saying that screen time should be banned because human interaction is better is just absurd because it’s not an either or situation. If we’re talking about extremes here, then would it be best for parents to have face to face time with their child for every minute of every day? Doesn’t that sound just as absurd as children being in front of a TV all day? (Well, maybe not as absurd, but still absurd.) Do you think that as parents you can exhibit some moderation and self control and maybe not have the only options to be no screen time or only screen time? Isn’t there some sort of middle ground that can be achieved without the government having to step in and tell you what to do?
7. Encourage a balance and set limits if you have to. I used to have this vision that I would let our kids have as much screen time as they want, and they would choose to have a balance…but that was not the case! I have since implemented some rules like: 1) While eating, they can only watch something educational 2) They have to do three activities (playing with legos, coloring, playing imagination games, etc.) before having choice time (watching TV, playing video games, playing ipads) 3) The limits I set on how long choice time is depends on what I need to get done. Also, if they did three quick activities, I might say that they have to have an educational choice like one of these educational apps.
The main point here is that it’s all about moderation. As parents, we have to moderate a lot of things in the lives of our children. There aren’t always (or ever?) times when things are just black and white. It is our job to sift through the gray and find things that work best for us, our family, our lives, and our children. So take the time to do the research yourself, see what works for your family through trial and error, but don’t blindly accept the fate doled out to you by some institution who only sees things in black and white.
If you agree that exposing children to educational programming (with limits), you might like the following blogs: