No ifs, ands or buts, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time—including TV, cell phones, and iPads—for children under the age of 2
by Sara G. Stephens
We live in a competitive world where parents are pressured more than ever to ensure their kids are the smartest and most advanced of their peers, in the hopes they will land a secure professional spot in a future that is likely to only get more competitive. The world we live in is also economically struck such that many parents must work as dual-income households, and still other social factors lead to many other parents raising their kids in single-parent homes. These realities leave less time for family interaction than enjoyed by previous generations, time that used to present countless opportunities for helping kids develop socially and cognitively.
Enter the age of super-electronics—seemingly modern-day heroes that sweep in to save the day. Today’s busy household rests assured, knowing that the glowing screens of television, iPads, and smart phones, with their baby-oriented programs and games, are not only entertaining kids, but also helping them grow intellectually.
Alas, that would be too easy.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a statement of concern regarding the negative effects stemming from the growing amount of “screen time” to which children are being exposed, accompanied by guidelines for the amount of “screen time” to which children should be exposed. The document, which can be found in its entirety in “Pediatrics,” the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, discusses trends and recommendations for all age groups of children. For children younger than 2 years, the AAP discourages all screen time and encourages “…more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.”
The Nature of the Brain
Michelle Forrester, PhD, PC, is a Houston-based child psychologist who has much to say on the topic of screen time for children under the age of 2. “Young children do not need screen time,” she says. “Children are born wired for social communication. Born looking for faces. Born oriented for human interaction. If that’s not occurring, it’s a problem,” she says.
In the past decade, SMRIs (Structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging) have given the scientific community unprecedented insight into brain development. The brain develops rapidly, and during the first three years of life, this development is especially brisk. Forrester says the research reinforces what cognitive psychologists have known for years: screen time offers nothing positive for young children, and even carries with it a number of negative effects.
“If child is exposed regularly to such entertainment, even watching their older siblings’ TV shows, it interferes with the young child’s sleep,” Forrester says. “The rapid flashes of video games are not appropriate, either. It’s a garbage-in-garbage-out principle. If a screen is a child’s primary source of information, how does he learn to interact and have reciprocal conversation? It doesn’t happen,” she adds.
In addition to her private practice, Forrester counsels preschool-age children in Houston’s 1st ward. These kids live in poverty and sit in front of televisions all day long, with nobody talking to them. Forrester says the children enter school with severely delayed language skills, despite the fact that they hear language on TV. “That’s not interaction,” she says, “and the kids come in woefully inactive, with blunted language skills, and a marked lack of engagement and interaction with other people.”
Positive social interaction is the key to a baby and young brain’s development, Forrester explains. “Aside from food and sleep, that’s the critical factor. It’s a basic human need.”
Many parents, in an effort to catapult their infants into advanced learning, search far and wide for new-release educational electronic programs, and test them out like the latest fad diet. The fact that their infants or toddlers are supposedly learning from their screen time rationalizes that screen time is time well-spent. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) might not agree.
On August 28, 2012, the FTC filed false advertising charges against the marketers of “Your Baby Can Read,” a video series which retailed for as much as $200. The company and its former CEO Hugh Penton agreed to settle the FTC’s charges, resulting in a $185 million judgment—equal to the company’s gross sales since 2008—against the company. The FTC has also initiated litigation against the company’s founder in federal court.
The Commission for a Commercial-Free Childhood initiated these charges in April 2011 and published the following statement in response to the FTC decision: “Today’s FTC action sends a strong message to all marketers who falsely hype the educational benefits of their products and exploit parents’ natural tendency to want the best for their children. There is simply no evidence that screen media is beneficial for babies.”
Forrester vehemently agrees. “Electronic baby flash cards and baby-learn-to-read programs are a colossal waste of a child’s brain potential,” she stresses. “The brain is wired for development in a very methodical manner. Infant brains are not geared for reading. They are geared for social development and acquiring language, and they need to do this face-to-face with human beings.”
Forrester comments on the situation of a particular 3-year-old girl she was told about whose mother reports is reading at a 3rd-grade level, thanks to the “Your Baby Can Read” program. “She has much bigger developmental concerns, and [her social behaviors] are a red flag for developmental disorder.”
Social Disorder Connection
In a 2007 Harris Interactive survey of youth ages 8-18, nearly 1 in 4 said they felt “addicted” to video games. In addition, several studies have discovered correlations between overall media exposure and problems with attention and language—the question under hot debate is which comes first? Caroline Miller, Editorial Director of the Child Mind Institute, tackled this issue in a July 2012 article on childmind.org. As Miller notes in the article, a child who can’t sit still for a moment in the classroom or focus long enough to complete simple tasks is somehow able to maintain remarkable focus for hours playing a video game. Parents witness this behavioral inconsistency in disbelief, and come up with three possible explanations: video games cause ADHD, these games exacerbate an existing condition, or their child does not, in fact, have ADHD at all.
Forrester says the problem is one of exacerbation, explaining that screen time can particularly worsen situations for children with social communication disorders like autism.
“I have parents who come in and say, ‘My kid can’t have ADHD. I set him in front of a video game and he plays for hours,’” Forrester comments. In reality, such behavior is the hallmark of this disorder, she says, with afflicted kids being drawn to such entertainment because it offers immediate gratification. “It’s not good, people. Turn it off. Parents wonder why their children can’t socially engage with kids. It’s because they’re not even given a chance.”
Path to Recovery
Although it would be difficult to prove whether or not the damage of screen-time abuse can, in fact, be reversed, Forrester sheds optimistic light on the matter. “Kids’ brains are amazing,” Forrester marvels. “The human brain is an organism. It can create new neural pathways.” Forrester says she has seen intervention work well in cases of media over-consumption. “We change how we relate to our kids, and our kids change as a result,” she says. “Start by being with them. Turn off your own iPad, iPhone, etc., and actually be with them, because the damage is not just from kids sitting in front of the TV, it’s from our not being available to them because we’re checking our phones, our email, whatever, and we are not available to converse and socially engage with our kids.”
Forrester talks about much of this concept in a book she is co-writing with childhood curriculum expert Dr. Kay Albrecht of Innovations, Inc., “Set for Life: Social, Emotional Tools for Life.” The book, due to be published in a few months, addresses the issue of relationship in teaching and how it really matters in a child’s development. “In the classroom, we must have a relationship with the children. That’s how it works,” she says. Forrester will next begin work on a follow-up book, similar in topic, but geared for parents.
Parents may agree, in theory, that the time is right for a change in their baby’s or toddler’s screen-time activities. But the next steps for how to practically achieve such change is daunting, especially when a child has older siblings whose screen time, even at an acceptable level, is much greater than the AAP’s zero-tolerance for infants and toddlers (The AAP recommends limiting older children’s total screen time to no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day).
Forrester’s advice is to monitor how much the older siblings are immersing themselves and to turn off their media devices, as well, to at least AAP recommendations. Other than that, it’s a matter of tough love. “You don’t let your babies stand at the stove when you’re pouring hot things,” she points out. “This is no different.”
Forrester also acknowledges that exceptions must be made on occasion. From a practical standpoint, there are times when a single working mother, for example, needs to allow her infant or toddler just enough screen time to let mom take a shower. “It’s unrealistic to say you can’t do any at all,” Forrester concedes, “but I think if kids are watching, the show needs to something educational, like Sesame Street or Baby Einstein—something with value.”
In other words, screen time, when unavoidable, should be spent on appropriate material, and for short periods of time. At every stage of the game, but most especially during the critical development of the infant and toddler brain, the most essential activity is social interaction.
“We’ve got to have human connection. That’s what makes us human,” Forrester says.
Fast Screen-Time Facts
• By the time the average person reaches age 70, he or she will have spent the equivalent of 7 to 10 years watching television. ( Nielsen Media Research) Forty percent of 3-month-old infants are regular viewers of screen media, and 19% of babies 1 year and under have a TV in their bedroom.
• Screen time can be habit-forming: the more time children engage with screens, the harder time they have turning them off as older children.
• Screen time for children under 3 is linked to irregular sleep patterns and delayed language acquisition.
• The more time preschool children and babies spend with screens, the less time they spend interacting with their parents. Even when parents co-view, they spend less time talking to their children than when they’re engaged in other activities.
• Toddler screen time is also associated with problems in later childhood, including lower math and school achievement, reduced physical activity, victimization by classmates, and increased BMI [body mass index].
• Direct exposure to TV and overall household viewing are associated with increased early childhood aggression.
• The more time preschool children spend with screens, the less time they spend engaged in creative play—the foundation of learning, constructive problem solving, and creativity.
• On average, preschool children see nearly 25,000 television commercials, a figure that does not include product placement.