Once again, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a statement to parents reminding them to place a limit on the amount of time their children under the age of two are in front of a screen. Coming more than a decade after their initial warning back in 1999, the basic sentiment is the same, but some of the details have changed.1
That first pronouncement of the AAP on the subject recommended a total ban on television for infants and toddlers. Now, the academy is somewhat more realistic but still strongly advises against TV time. And actually, they have recognized the proliferation of media in our environment and altered their statement to suit life in 2012. The AAP not only suggests limiting television programs, but also computer time, educational hand-held games and leaving the TV on as background noise no matter what the show.
The pediatricians who devised the academy’s latest say on the topic suggest that even the shows considered “educational” provide no true learning benefit to children this young. There may be some value for older kids, but babies and toddlers just don’t absorb anything meaningful. Instead, those in the zero to two category learn best by playing and socializing with other people. Every minute of screen time is time lost that they could be developing their language skills and learning through creative play. And even sitting near a television while engaging with your child proves to be a distraction to the both of you. Research has found that between 40 and 60 percent of families keep a television on all day long.
The new guidelines are definitely more sensible, considering the number of media sources in the typical household. Rather than seeking to prohibit young children from screen time completely, they recommend restricting screen time for babies and toddlers to help parents become more aware of just how long they have been allowing them to watch. While a few minutes here or there may not be harmful, there have been studies linking media exposure at a young age with attention and language difficulties.
The academy calculates that each hour a young child spends at a television, computer, or other media source equals approximately 50 fewer minutes interacting with a parent or caregiver. It also translates to 10 percent less time spent playing creatively — the best way for a child this age to learn. By setting some limits on the amount of screen time babies get, they will not only get ahead by learning more, but also start developing good habits for the future. Obviously, just because a two-year-old doesn’t watch much doesn’t mean that when that same child is 15 they won’t be obsessed with their computer, but at least it doesn’t get them into terrible habits at an early age.
But that’s only half the story.
Before you can say, “Happy Birthday,” these same children, who just a moment ago were under two, will be preschoolers who are asking to sit in front of the television or play on the computer or go to an app on the iPad all the time. And once again, it is essential to not only keep up with restrictions on time, but also on content. A study last year at the University of Virginia in Charlottesviille found that even watching just a few minutes of a typical, fast-paced children’s cartoon can negatively affect the viewer’s mental acuity.2 The 60 four-year-old participants were randomly divided into three groups, separated to watch a popular show about an animated sponge, a more educational PBS program, or color with markers and crayons. When tested after a nine-minute period, the kids who watched SpongeBob scored substantially lower than the children in the other two groups. There was a marked difference between those who viewed the educational programming and those who viewed the cartoon.
And these results fall right in line with a 2010 study that found that, on average, 11% of two-year olds and 23% of four-year-olds watch more than the recommended maximum of 2-hours per day. Summarizing the results of the study, the research leader Dr. Linda Pagani, of the University of Montreal said, “We found every additional hour of TV exposure among toddlers corresponded to a future decrease in classroom engagement and success at math, increased victimization by classmates, a more sedentary lifestyle, higher consumption of junk food and, ultimately, higher body mass index.”
So the bottom line is to try to keep the youngest of children away from the television and other media as much as possible and keep the devices off when you are not actively using them. In the real world, we all know that parents will let older children have some screen time, but try to set limits and keep the viewing to what’s appropriate and at least somewhat educational.
1 Carey, Benedict. “Parents Urged Again to Limit TV for Youngest.” New York Times. 18 October 2011. (Accessed 10 January 2012). <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/health/19babies.html>.
2 Lillard, Angeline S. and Peterson, Jennifer. “The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function.” Pediatrics. 12 September 2011. (Accessed 18 October 2011). <http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/09/08/peds.2010-1919>.