OPINION: The conversation around children and media may be too narrow

In recent weeks, there has been heightened concern in the news about the effects of media use on children’s well-being. Two large investors of technology company Apple wrote an open letter stating their concern that children’s overuse of smartphones may be harmful to their developing brains. Dozens of pediatric and mental health experts took to Facebook asking that they get rid of Messenger Kids, a social media messaging service for children as young as age 6. Concerns from parents, teachers and health practitioners about children’s use of media aren’t new, but recently there has been a call for tech leaders to be held more responsible for the products they create.

This call to action is certainly warranted, as a conversation between developmental experts and technology companies is necessary to create a healthy place for media in children’s lives. But during this time of uncertainty, it’s also important to consider various historical factors that contribute to the concern around children’s use of media, as well as the influence of our own relationship with media.

Historically, society has always been concerned about the influence of new technology on children.

In the 1940s, adults expressed concern about the effect of listening to radio on children’s emotional development. In the 1950s, adults were worried that watching television would make children go blind or expose them to too much violence.

With new technology, history follows a pattern: Each new technology brings about new concerns, which are then followed by an increase in research investigating the technology’s effect on children. As we learn how to safely adapt the technology into children’s lives, the uproar and subsequent research wanes — sometimes just in time before the next technology arrives.

The presence of this pattern doesn’t negate societal concerns. Rather, this pattern signifies that, in many ways, the worry around the tablets or smartphones is no different than the worry surrounding, say, TV in 1950s. The same will likely come once future technology becomes mainstream. For instance, once virtual reality devices are released for widespread use, there will likely be a similar concern about their impact on healthy child development. Adults’ concerns and reactions are necessary to decide how and if these technologies are going to become a part of children’s lives.

We can worry about children, but adults’ use of mobile devices is also problematic.

Most parents and caregivers know the importance of being a positive role model for their children. Children are adept at modeling adult behavior, and children learn from observing their parents, like what role each parent plays in the home. As much as parents might think that restricting children’s use of devices will fully protect them from potentially harmful effects, parents are also teaching children what appropriate media behavior looks like through their own use. For example, a parent may not let their child play with touchscreen devices, but if they themselves are using their device at the dinner table or while interacting with the child, the child may implicitly learn that these are appropriate ways to use technology. As much as it is important to start the conversation around children’s use of technology, we also need to consider our own use and how it may influence our children’s relationship with technology.

Consider the role of media in your own child’s life.

 Amid the general conversation about media and children’s well-being, it’s also important for parents to consider the role of media in their own child’s life. There are certainly individual differences in technology use, as well as in the extent to which people develop habit-forming behaviors toward media. For example, two children may use social media the same amount of time, but one child may be replacing social interactions with social media while the other has maintained their real-world relationships and activities. Healthy media use may not look the same for every child, so it’s important to consider whether your own child’s behavior and happiness has changed negatively, or positively, due to media use.

When considering the role of media in children’s lives, it’s important to consider the historical, parental and individual factors that influence children’s development. As we work as a society toward figuring out how new technology fits into children’s lives, we can work specifically on creating healthy media habits for ourselves and for the children in our lives.

Why You Should Watch TV with Your Child

Research has shown that television can be educational for young children. For example, years of research on Sesame Street has shown that the show can improve preschoolers’ abilities in a variety of academic areas, like reading, math and social skills. In general, when television programs are designed to be age-appropriate and when the content aligns with its educational purpose, pre-school aged children can learn from television.

But television has its limitations in being an educational tool, especially for young children. Although television can be beneficial for children’s learning, young children learn best from people who can respond to their questions and direct their attention. For example, one study found that 12- to 18-month year olds did not learn any new words from watching an educational video (Baby Einstein) over four weeks, but they did learn the same words when their parent taught them through natural interactions.

Most important, parents can help young child learn from television by watching television with them, This is called “co-viewing.” When parents co-view with their child, they often elaborate on the content of the show, or direct their child’s attention to a certain aspect of the show. For instance, if Elmo is demonstrating how plants grow, a parent who is co-viewing may remind the child that they have plants in their home too, or point out that Elmo is feeding the plant water so it will grow.

One way co-viewing can help children learn is by directing children’s attention to important learning events on the screen. For example, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, observed parents and children’s looking patterns toward a television screen and found that one-year-olds will follow their parent’s eye gaze toward the screen. This is important because children’s learning from television depends on their attention to the screen, so parents’ attention to the screen can also help children stay focused.

Another way parents help children learn from television is by using it as a teaching opportunity. One study conducted at the University of California, Riverside, found that 12- to 25-month olds were more attentive while viewing a show and used more vocabulary words from the show when their parents engaged in more teaching interactions compared to children whose parents did not engage in many teaching interactions. Therefore, parents do not only direct their child’s attention to the screen, but can emphasize important learning concepts that are represented in the show.

It is important to note that having the television turned on generally reduces parent-child interactions. Parents talk less with their children and scaffold their children’s play less when the television is turned on compared to when it is not turned on. However, when the TV is turned on, children have the opportunity to learn the most from television when they are viewing with a parent who can direct their attention, answer their questions and elaborate on the storyline of the show.

There are some great educational shows on TV for children to watch, and parents can help their children learn more from the screen and apply that learning to their everyday lives when they co-view with their children. Once you spend some time watching television shows with kids, you’ll be surprised how much you learn, too!

New Guidelines for Children and Media

About two weeks ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a new policy statement on young children’s media use, including both the potential educational benefits and health concerns for children aged five years and younger. Previously, the AAP advocated for no screen time for children under the age of two, but based on some new research showing that toddlers can learn from interactive technology, the AAP revised their conclusions and made several important recommendations for parents:

  • Continue to engage in hands-on, unstructured play with your child. This is the AAP’s way of saying, “We’re about to loosen our guidelines for children’s media use, but that doesn’t mean you should substitute hands-on learning with media.” A separate AAP report describes research that shows exploration, puzzle play and parent-child interaction can benefit children’s social, emotional and cognitive development, so keep doing this.
  • For children younger than 18-months, discourage media use other than video chat. There is a lot of research showing that children between 12- and 18-months learn better from live interaction compared to video, also known as the video-deficit effect. However, in the past few years research has emerged suggesting toddlers can learn from some interactive media. For example, 24-month olds can learn new words from a Skye interaction with an adult. Also, parents that I’ve talked to were letting their toddlers video chat anyway, and since there is no evidence that video chat is bad for children, this is really a way of making parents feel less guilty for something they were already doing.
  • For children 18- to 24-months, parents who want to introduce media should do so IF the media is high quality and if parents and children use the media together. We know that children can learn STEM concepts, literacy and social-emotional skills from high quality educational television, such as Sesame Street and PBS programming. We also know that co-viewing and co-use – when parents watch or use media with their children – helps children understand the content they are consuming. For example, with e-books, children benefit when parents elaborate on the narrative and ask children questions about the story, as long as the features of the e-book aren’t distracting. Therefore, parents can expose their 18- to 24-month olds to high quality media if they are co-viewing with them, but parents should avoid letting children in this age range use media alone.
  • For children older than 2-years, limit media use to an hour per day and use with your child when possible to increase learning and interaction. Despite the educational benefits of media, limiting media use to an hour per day helps remind parents that their children should be engaging in other types of educational activities, like pretend play, block play and playing with other children. Although older children are better able to understand television and digital games, restricting children’s use is a good way to make sure they are engaging in other beneficial, hands-on activities.
  • No screens during meal times and an hour before bed. Considering children’s health, research shows that having a media device present during mealtime is associated with less parent-child interaction. Moreover, the blue light emitted from screens may lead to shorter sleep durations for children when screens are used at night before bed. One good practice is to not allow media in the bedroom or at the kitchen table during meals.
  • Educate yourself and seek out resources. There are lots of resources available to parents on how to engage with their children and media in healthy ways. Parents can develop a Family Media Use Plan, find high-quality television shows and apps and can educate themselves on early child development. One good resource is org, which is an organization that evaluates and reviews media, so that parents and educators know what media is age appropriate, how to engage with children around media, and which programs and games have been shown to have educational benefits. You can also refer to this blog or visit our center’s website to learn more about new research on children and media.

These new guidelines are important because pediatricians are the first practitioners who can inform parents on healthy media behavior for their infants in children. But of course, research on touch screens and media is rapidly emerging, so it’s important to keep in mind that these recommendations may change, either to become more stringent or more lax. One of my goals with this blog is to keep parents and educators up-to-date on the latest research, so I encourage you to use this as a source of information about children and healthy media habits.